As I drove through rural south Georgia on Friday, there they were again. Confederate flags flapping in the breeze from several houses and a business or two.
You have to marvel at the power of the mythmakers for the Confederacy. They really have convinced some people, even all these years later, that there was something noble about the Southern cause in the Civil War, even though that cause happens to have been one of the most ignoble imaginable: the right to enslave other human beings.
Just in time for Memorial Day, though, some historians and other academics have been sounding a new note of sanity.
As part of a campaign organized by Edward Sebesta — a Dallas-based historian, who has written about the contemporary efforts of neo-Confederate groups — they have circulated a letter, which now has more than 60 signatures, calling on President Obama to abandon a tradition of sending a wreath to the Confederate Memorial at Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day.
The monument was given to the federal government by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and U.S. presidents have been sending wreaths over to it ever since Woodrow Wilson started the practice in 1914. Until the elder George Bush’s time, the wreaths were sent on or around the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Bush switched the timing to Memorial Day.
“The monument,” the academics say in their letter, “was intended to legitimize secession and the principles of the Confederacy and the glory of the Confederacy. It isn’t just a remembrance of the dead. The speeches at its groundbreaking and dedication defended and held up as glorious the Confederacy and the ideas behind it and stated that the monument was to these ideals as well as the dead. It was also intended as a symbol of white nationalism, portrayed in opposition to the multiracial democracy of Reconstruction, and a celebration of the re-establishment of white supremacy in the former slave states by former Confederate soldiers.”
The conclusion of the letter asks the president “to break this chain of racism.”
Several news organizations have reported that Obama will send the wreath anyway. Sebesta still hopes he’ll change his mind but promises he’ll send a petition with a whole lot more signers next year if Obama continues the practice.
It’s easy to imagine that this is one fight the president might not think he needs. Most likely, the presidents who have carried on this tradition have regarded it as empty symbolism, anyway.
But the signers of the letter are clearly correct: The “chain of racism” that is inevitably linked to efforts to glorify the Confederacy needs to be broken. — once and for all.
Full text of letter to Obama: