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Keep Helena’s Confederate Memorial Fountain, But…

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Recently there has been some debate in Helena about the propriety of keeping a fountain that serves as a monument to the Confederacy in Hill Park. One of my former students wrote a thoughtful letter to the editor suggesting that the monument be rededicated to “a cause that celebrates Montana’s history of fostering equality.”

The Montana Cowgirl blog offers more support for rededicating the monument, arguing that “it’s hard to understand how anyone would oppose rededicating a monument currently dedicated to the battle to keep slavery legal,” while the Flathead Memo argues Helena should “recycle the granite in the spirit of beating swords into plowshares.”

Commenters at both the IR and the MT Cowgirl have swooped in on outraged wings to argue that changing or removing the fountain is just another example of liberals wanting to rewrite history, with some, of course, going as far as to suggest that renaming the fountain is something Stalin would have done or ISIS is doing, always the measure of someone interested in a reasoned argument.

What that argument ignores is that this nation has been subjected to over a century of historical revisionism about the nature of the Confederacy that has become so pervasive that a majority of American high school students don’t believe the South left the Union over slavery, but for “states’ rights.”

And who was most responsible for reshaping public perception of the war? A group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who spent 1894-1960s in efforts to “revere the memory of those heroes in gray and to honor that unswerving devotion to principle which has made the confederate soldier the most majestic in history,” building monuments to the war as part of their strategy.

The truth is that the only rewriting of history that has really happened is the bizarre effort to paint the Civil War as something other than what it was: the insurrection of a band of traitors willing to rip the nation in half to preserve the odious institution of slavery.

Given that the Helena City Commission plans to discuss next week whether anything should be done with the monument, I’d like to offer a humble proposal: keep the monument, but make sure that it actually tells the history of the Confederacy. While my initial thought was passing a law that required all Confederate monuments fly the white flag of surrender, I realized that would be a missed opportunity to preserve history, as defenders of the Confederacy purport to care so much about.

So, my proposal is this: if we keep the Confederate monument, the city should add a series of plaques or other displays providing historical context, including the following information:

  • that the rather short Confederate constitution included no fewer than ten references to slavery;
  • that in its Declaration of Causes, almost singularly obsessed with slavery, the people of South Carolina, wrote of the North that “they have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”
  • that the people of Georgia rebelled against the Union almost entirely because of slavery, writing in their declaration of causes that: “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property.”
  • that the people of Mississippi, in their declaration opened with this: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.”
  • that the people of Louisiana left, “bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.”
  • that the Vice President of the Confederacy, in his Cornerstone Speech argued that slavery was the cause of the rebellion: “The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
  • quotes from the moving slave narratives about the real lives of slaves in the South.

If the defenders of historical integrity would prefer other examples, I am more than willing to compromise, as each state that left the Union at the time of the Civil War left largely for fear that Abraham Lincoln would eventually abolish their “peculiar institution” and there is copious historical evidence attesting to the Confederacy’s focus on slavery.

I am sympathetic to the argument that we need to be careful about tearing down parts of our history, because preserving our worst moments can serve us, but only if we use those moments to tell the entire story. The city of Helena, appearing to sanction, by its prominent placement in a city park, the hateful ideology of the Confederacy cannot be permitted to continue, but if we transform the site into a place of authentic memory, complete with the history of the horrors of the institution the Confederacy was birthed to defend, Helena might just offer its young people history of value.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

21 Comments

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  • Only lately have I been able to reconcile my disparate education of the southern insurrection. Growing up, I knew that we (USA) fought to end slavery. However, in high school (70’s), I was presented with the information that the war was over economics and state’s rights. Savvy students figured out the economics and state’s right was slavery. Sadly, many fell for the ruse.

    • It’s interesting to think about how the things we’re taught stick with us. I certainly remember being taught that the war was more about the rights of Southern states. Even the textbook we have used in Helena (changing this year) deemphasizes the role of slavery, talking about “Southern culture” and rights more than slavery as the cause of secession.

      • I wonder if this is one of the textbooks approved by the text adoption group in Texas? There apparently has been a concerted effort sanitizing the history of that period. And, textbook publishers are pretty spineless where sales are involved.

        I grew up during the 50’s and 60’s, lived in the Yankee East until we moved to Montana. Folks back then were still pretty actively “fighting the Civil War.”

        Of course, this was also the period of Brown V Board of Education, and the continued challenge of Jim Crow. In fact, what is missing in this whole discussion is an understanding of Jim Crow and segregation.

        The South did “lose” the Civil War, but they actually struggled long and hard to preserve their peculiar institution. The Klan and the White Citizens Councils were essential parts of this effort.

        The rebel rag as used today is an outgrowth of the period of Brown V Board of Education and George Wallace’s stand at the gates of the University of Alabama.

        In the context of the history of American race relations and segregation, the fountain in Helena is pretty benign. There are likely more pressing issues facing Montanans today.

        We have political leaders who believe that humans and thunder lizards walked the earth together. We have politicians who want to destroy public education, who don’t accept the science behind climate change and who want to sell off our public lands. These are the current enemies of the public good.

        Oh, and yes, shoddy teaching of history is a serious problem. And, not understanding the ongoing nature of Secessionist revisionism is a problem.

        Given all that, I suspect the fountain debate has already provided a distraction and has already disintegrated into the babble that passes for political discussion today.

      • I remember being frustrated at US History College classes in late fifties. Social Historians pushed their methods , not documented history.
        Meanwhile Econ classes again and again pushed mathematical models that proved free trade is a win-win-win.

        geezer Bob

  • Inbreds luv revisionist history as a means to promote their anti-gubmint views. The slave owners were the REAL Murcans ’cause they didn’t take no crap off’n no liberals in D.C. Liberals have destroyed the country. The south had full employment and a good economy. GOD BLESS THE SOUTH, THE REAL MURCA! They talk real slow down there ’cause they ARE real slow down there! We don’t need them up here in Montana!
    http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/04/civil-war-american-south-still-loves-confederacy-116771.html#.VZbQS-nnahw

  • Spot on proposal Dan. Instead of hiding from a terrible period we need to get it out in the open where it will no longer fester and address all the points.

    Yes the CSA tried to tear this nation apart in order to maintain their hold on another race.

    Citizens of the Southern States have also disproportionately served this country in defense of liberty after that Civil war.

    There is much to learn from the period of 1860-2016.

    • Really? The south actually tried to DEFEND liberty after the civil war?? For whom? All them black folks they lynched? Got it. Yes, they epitomized the words with liberty and justice for all! I’m sure that many of my relatives and ancestors committed an horrific genocide during WWII, but you know what? WE DON’T CELEBRATE THAT SH*T! Nor honor it. Nor commemorate it! It’s not something I’m particularly proud of. We just try to forget it and understand how they could do such things to fellow human beings using the context of history.

      • “We just try to forget it and understand how they could do such things to fellow human beings using the context of history.”

        Those who ignore history or attempt to forget often end up repeating the same mistakes.

        • Your inbred brain got your tongue, cupcake? For WHOM, did they fight for freedumb? You’re welcome. I don’t generally educate folks without a fee! You’ve got nothing. Where you from, southern dude? This is Montana. The southern hatred is NOT our heritage! Tear ALL that racist sh*t down!
          For the record, I DID serve in Nam with all my southern buddies. I know them well. Did YOU?! Jus’ askin’, Me? Nope. Never been east of Sidney, Mt. But I know what the south’s all about!
          LET THE GAMES BEGIN! I’m ready.

          • The new south looks a LOT like the old south! Inbred racist reeetarts! Hey, I have an idea. Let’s CELEBRATE racist reetartism with a fountain! Right, Daughters of Inbred Dudes? Why not?! We elected Sen. Cornhole Burns. We can do anything! (sniff) Sorry, I get all weepy when I think about all the great things in the land of cotton! An entire economy based upon the debasement and subjugation of other human beings is just SO patridiotic that I want to run out and buy me ’bout ten Dixie Swastika flags! (break into song here)
            Oh I whist I was in the land of cotton
            Helena fountains must not be gotten
            Rid away, rid away, rid away, Inbred land!
            Join in if’n you know the words!
            http://www.rawstory.com/2015/07/the-kkk-will-hold-a-labor-day-cross-burning-and-they-want-supporters-to-bring-their-children/

            • You go onahead, you are doing just fine making an ass out of yourself without any assistance from me. Happy 7/4.

  • Me THINKS my favorite writer Joe Bageant (a southerner by the way) is talking about YOU, McGullible! Put an Murcan flag on your truck and Jeezus in your dull brain, and you think you won the lottery! Jeezus plus nothing. Ever heard of that? It’s what the fascists want you to believe! In his book Travels with Charlie published in 1962, Steinbeck writes about returning to Seattle after a long absence. He was amazed at the changes, and said, “Why does progress look so much like destruction”? I would ask, why does patriotism look so much like fascism? Easy answer. ‘Cause it is!
    Better keep your Jeezus grease us handy, for the oligarchs are gonna slip you the big Jeezus baloney once again! They get everything, and you get Jeezus and your flag! Hmm. Seems like a fair trade to me!
    Sad, so sad, that America has become the land of the simple!
    http://www.alternet.org/story/148237/bitter_tales_from_the_massive_white_underclass_in_joe_bageant's_%22redneck%22_memoir

    • Unfortunately for the inbred christofascist crowd, they founding fathers were NOT what they THINK they were! I plan to get this book, but in the meantime, you can find lots of good interviews with the author. He kinda wrote this book in response to all the christofascist nonsense out there. The reality is that our founding fathers were actually card carrying atheists! They were simply to intelligent to fall for the religiobullshit spouted by the inbreds of their time! And THAT, my inbred friends, is how we became a free country!
      http://www.wnyc.org/story/infidels-and-atheists-who-founded-america/

  • I would like to invite everyone with an opinion on this issue to a Constructive Conversation on the Confederate fountain this Saturday, August 22, 6:30 pm at the Neighborhood Center at 200 S Cruse Ave.

    We are a group of conservatives and liberals who disagree about most things. We do agree that everyone deserves to be heard in respectful conversation. For more info go to our Facebook event page at https://www.facebook.com/events/462126897303275/ or email me at [email protected].

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