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Separate but Equal Wreaths are Not a Permanent Solution to the Memorial Day Conundrum

Although I had signed petitions to the President going back to the '60s, before Memorial Day 2009 I had never helped to start one.  This year, the fact that neo-Confederates misconstrue the Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery to misconstrue the Civil War to misconstrue the Confederate cause got to me ... especially since every Memorial Day, the President of the United States lends his prestige to that monument by sending it a wreath.

We (Ed Sebesta and I) wound up with more than 60 co-signers, including major historians of the Civil War period like David Blight, Vernon Burton, and James McPherson; other distinguished historians like John Dittmer, Paul Finkelman, and Kenneth Jackson; and scholars in allied disciplines like Grey Gundaker, Florence Roisman, and Amilcar Shabazz.  Leaders or former leaders of important organizations lent their names, including Josh Brown, Lee Formwalt, Susan Glisson, and Roger Kennedy.  Professors of education signed, including Sonia Nieto, David Shiman, and Bill Ayers. 

Ayers is on my contacts list because, more than a dozen years ago, he participated in inviting me to speak to pre-service teachers at the University of Illinois (Chicago) about ideas in my best-seller, Lies My Teacher Told Me.  When sending out emails to people on my list, I considered omitting him, since I knew of his toxic fame.  I emailed him anyway, because Sarah Palin had told us all he was a "pal" of President Obama, because it did not feel right to censor my contacts list, and also because I just wanted to see what would happen. 

It turned out that the only name the media cared about was Ayers.  The Chicago Sun-Times, for instance, headlined its story, "Radical Bill Ayers dogs Obama, even on Memorial Day."  Within the story, Ayers's name does not appear until the 14th paragraph, which is appropriate.  But no other signer's name appears at all — not mine, not Sebesta's, not even McPherson's, surely America's pre-eminent scholar on the period, whose Battle Cry of Freedomwon the Pulitzer Prize.  Today, searching for "Ayers Obama "Memorial Day" wreath yields 7,570 hits, while "McPherson Obama "Memorial Day" yields just 2,570. 

On Sebesta's list of contacts was art historian Kirk Savage, whose book, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves treats Civil War memorials.  Savage penned an op-ed to the Washington Post suggesting that President Obama continue the tradition of the Confederate wreath, but also send one to the new African American Civil War Memorial in DC.  (He had proposed this to Sebesta, but for reasons this essay notes, Ed rejected the idea.)  The Post never did a story about our petition but did print Savage's op-ed opposing it. 

Despite the Post's silence, AP and other outlets picked up the story.  A minor controversy followed.  HNN's posting of our petition drew 90 comments.  A blog about the matter at Daily Kos spurred more than 250.  Savage's op-ed generated nine pages at WashingtonPost.com.  Many were from neo-Confederates attacking any challenge to their beloved Confederate legend.  Others, however, came from people respectful of the cause of good race relations while also respectful of the dead. 

Americans need to understand that Confederate Memorials come in two kinds.  One type remembers and honors the dead.  The other glorifies the cause and typically obfuscates what it was (which was slavery).  The Arlington monument is of the second type.  Donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, erected during the Nadir of Race Relations, it does not purport to tell accurate history.  It even gets the number of Confederate states wrong, implying that 14 seceded, when only 11 did.  Moreover, in recent years neo-Confederates have deliberately misconstrued a black body servant, included in the bas-reliefs, as a Confederate soldier.  Then they cite him as "evidence" that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy.  As a corollary, this claim continues, the South could not have seceded for slavery. 

Why should the President privilege this monument over, say, the Confederate monument in neighboring Alexandria, a pensive statue of the former type? 

Why, for that matter, should the President privilege this monument over every single monument to United States troops in the Civil War? 

The day after, the President’s wreath lies in a heap to the side of the Confederate monument. 

It might be said that he no longer does.  Unlike his predecessors from Wilson to W, Obama eventually followed Savage's idea and sent two wreaths, one to the Confederate monument, one to the African American monument.  Doing so was certainly a significant advance over former practice.  However, dual wreaths implicitly equate service for the Union and service against it.  They also implicitly equate war fought to maintain and extend slavery with war eventually fought (admittedly, not at first) to end slavery.  Surely both sides are not of equal moral value. 

This is not the place to make the argument that the South seceded for slavery, not states' rights.  Everyone knew this in 1860-61.  Today anyone who believes that the Southern states left because they favored states' rights has only to search for and read "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union."  Also useful is my short chapter on Gettysburg in Lies Across America, which tells why and when the states' rights myth began to be told. 

To be sure, neither Savage nor the president probably intended to equate North and South.  Surely, both Savage and the president meant this "solution" as a way to sidestep all such moral and historical issues and merely honor the dead on both sides.  Thus the president assuages two "special interests":  neo-Confederates on the one side, and African Americans (and historians) on the other.  Left out are United States Civil War veterans as a whole — white and black together. 

Hoping to avoid post-petition depression, I humbly suggest that important historical questions remain.  Why would presidents of the United States, for almost a hundred years, send wreaths just to the Southern side — the losing side and the wrong side — of our greatest war?  Did presidents ever send wreaths to U.S. Civil War monuments — perhaps to the G.A.R. monument in DC — before the Nadir of Race Relations set in?  Has even one of the 2,000+ Union monuments ever received a presidential wreath on Memorial Day since the Nadir?  What is the connection between race relations of the time and how we remember the past?