History has a way of weighing on a nation. Whether it's Germany and the Holocaust, Japan's struggle with the horrors of Hiroshima, or Argentina's drawn-out Dirty War, a nation's history -- and how that nation's people digest it -- can shape generations and change the way it's perceived by the rest of the world. So, too, is the case with the Confederate States of America. Those spunky secessionists left an indelible mark on American history -- that's beyond dispute. While we're united now, that particular past's hardly done with its dirty work.
Take, for example, two separate but equally important scenarios playing out in South Carolina and Missouri. In South Carolina, state Sen. Robert Ford successfully lobbied a senatorial committee to pass a bill requiring county and municipal governments to recognize Confederate Memorial Day, which some states set aside for soldiers who fought against the Union.
According to Ford, a black Democrat, CMD should be held in the same regard as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which, in case you're unaware, celebrates the life, work and death of one of America's greatest civil rights leaders.
Blacks and whites don't always get along in South Carolina, Ford admits, but insists CMD could bridge long-standing divides: "I'm tired of all the bickering and the hatred and the fighting we do in South Carolina... A black person needs to know what a white person goes through in South Carolina and vice versa. If you're born in South Carolina, it's your history too. We need to know what made Southern whites do what they did, secede from the Union and fight a four-year, bloody war." South Carolina resident Ron Dorgay whole-heartedly agrees.
Mr. Dorgay's forefathers fought in the Confederate Army and he believes that too many people have turned their backs on an integral component of our nation's past: "Even in our school systems, they don't teach the correct history." History, of course, comes with a price -- figuratively and literally. Under Ford's bill, local governments who comply with the bank holiday would have to shell out hundreds of thousands in overtime to cops and emergency workers who clock in on that last Monday in May. Those who refuse, meanwhile, risk missing out on millions in state-administered funds.
The problem isn't about money, says local NAACP leader Lonnie Randolph: "Here Senator Ford is talking about the importance of race relations by forcing recognition of people who did everything they could to destroy another race.... You can't make dishonor honorable. It's impossible." Meanwhile, over in Missouri, appeals judges also wrestled with the Confederacy this week.
That state's 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that St. Louis's Farmington High School acted lawfully when it suspended a trio of students who repeatedly wore the Confederate flag to school. The students contended that school officials violated their free speech rights and, as Americans are wont to do, sued.
For its part, the school said that a history of race-related violence and the potential for more were reason enough to ban the students' sartorial expression. The court concurred, "Based on substantial race-related events occurring both at the school and in the community, some of which involved the Confederate flag, we hold that the District's ban was constitutionally permissible." It also ruled that, in light of violence -- including an incident where a white student allegedly urinated on a black classmate -- "some limitation of normal free expression is constitutionally permissible."
American history, young and old, has shown that the Confederate flag and its many connotations can inflame racial tensions, but that doesn't make the Civil War any less a part of our history than, say, the Revolutionary War. Nor does it diminish that dark period's resonance.
There have been scores of court cases about the confederacy, most commonly with regard to State houses flying the infamous flag. Those debates, however, are peanuts when compared to Senator Ford's pitch. Ford's bill essentially elevates the Confederate history into the upper echelons of our collective memory -- and beyond. For, despite Henry Ford's famous assertion that "history is bunk," it's how we're remembered. Are post-Obama Americans willing to canonize such a bleak event? Is it necessary to revisit the Confederacy and unabashedly accept it into the historical fold?
Robert Herman, a lawyer who represented one of the students in St. Louis, made an interesting point after this week's decision. Violence aside, he said, the court had "essentially taken judicial notice that the Confederate flag is inherently a racist statement, which just isn't true." And that's the headache of historical debates. Yes, the South largely preferred forced, immoral labor, but the Civil War was as much about economics as it was about race. (Although it could also be argued that those two concepts were one and the same at the time.) The war wasn't one-dimensional, nor should it be remembered as such -- that is, if it should be remembered at all.
Our nation made history last November, so perhaps it's time we revisit some other important events and figure out just what lessons we can learn. Or, on the other hand, perhaps it's time for us to accept the terrible sacrifices made in order to reach today and just be happy we survived.