29 February 2016

Are Mainstream Civil War Museums Racist?

(This post is Part 2 and a follow up to a recent post asking the same rhetorical question about "Mainstream Civil War Magazines." You will need to read that post first in order to understand the discussion in this one.)

The American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia sells the items pictured above (at least they do at the time of this post) in their Museum Shop. These images are actual screenshots taken from their webpage.

So again, is the American Civil War Museum "racist" because it sells these flags? No, of course not, but how do certain historians separate the selling of these flags, from those wearing and displaying them publicly after their purchase? Are museums like the ACWM "enablers" of "racist intent"? Are they, like Civil War magazines, knowingly marketing to "racists"? No and neither are the magazines. However if you claim that everyone displaying a Confederate flag image is a "racist", then the association is inseparable.

The ACWM, (consisting of, in part, the former Museum of the Confederacy) sells other items which also display the Confederate flag in their shop.

As anyone who has ever worked in, or been associated with, any kind of museum (I serve on the board of 2) would know, gift sales from souvenirs like these can represent substantial funding in addition to whatever other funding mechanisms that are in place, i.e., grants, donations, admission tickets, etc. 

Moreover, the items sold also further the particular museum's mission to educate, inform and spur discussion. They can also drive more traffic to the museum, working in synergy with other promotion efforts which benefit the museum, the teaching of history and the community at large.

In other words, sells of these items are important for a number of reasons. Museums would not offer them if they weren't.

But now we have certain individuals suggesting that anyone and everyone who publicly displays a Confederate image (especially a flag) must be assumed to be a "racist." Again, the claim is absurd on it's face and irresponsible. You'll note that these same individuals refuse to call out the magazines, museums and other organizations (other than the SCV), for violating their "standards." Why the double standard?

One of the historians associated with the ACWM is John Coski, whom I quoted in the previous post from an article he wrote for the respected popular magazine, Civil War Times. I would highly recommend Coski's book on the topic of the Confederate flag. I only own an uncorrected page proof review copy before it was actually published, but I assume most of what I'll be quoting is essentially the same. Embattled Emblem was published in 2005 by Belknap (Harvard University Press). Like any such book, readers will likely find things in Coski's book with which they disagree - regardless of which side you come down on in this debate. I did. But, overall, it is about as balanced and honest a book on the topic as one will find today.

So what are some of the things that the Nation's leading expert on the Confederate flag has to say about it? As I alluded to in the earlier post, Coski is by no means a "flag-waving neo-Confederate." He tackles the CBF's racist misuse head on and pulls no punches. But, again, he also gives a full and complete understanding of the flag's multi-dimensional history and symbolism. For example, in the books' epilogue (titled "The Second American Flag") Coski boils down the history of the flag's evolving symbolism and offers possible solutions to the ongoing debate. He also notes the following after a discussion on the fall of Communism in Europe in the early 1990's:
Whether as a symbol of national liberation or of individual expression and rebelliousness, in Europe the Confederate battle flag is associated typically with American values and American culture. From a vantage point beyond our shores, the Confederate battle flag is an American symbol . . . the Europeans have grasped something that Americans take for granted: the Confederate flag is fundamentally an American flag.
And Coski seems to grasp what many elites do not:
. . . [it] is not therefore simply going to disappear. The people who fly or revere the flag will not become extinct, and they will resist efforts to reeducate them to view it as offensive. On the contrary, they will pass reverence for the flag from generation to generation and strive to reeducate others to accept their understanding of its meaning. For them, the flag will always be a war memorial and summon heroic visions of soldiers fighting for southern independence, not slavery or racism. If precedent serves as a guide to the future, insults hurled at the flag and demands for its removal will prompt more people to rally to its defense.
And we saw a perfect manifestation of that last sentence last year. As the feeding frenzy against all things Confederate reached a fever pitch, many sellers of the flag could not keep up with demand. Anecdotally, I saw the number of Confederate flags being flown on private property explode in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The vast majority of those are still flying.

Coski continues his discussion of this "second American flag":
The capacity of the battle flag to express both American patriotism and often strident opposition to mainstream American ideals is further confirmation of its status as the second American flag. It shares the ambidextrous quality with the Stars and Stripes, which has stood in symbolic opposition to and unity with the battle flag. The Ku Klux Klan has used the Stars and Stripes far longer and far more often than they have the St. Andrew's cross. . . . In other words, the Stars and Stripes has proven perfectly capable of expressing the thoughts and values that critics of the Confederate flag fear and loathe.
So what of "historians" who proclaim that "there is little reason to give anyone the benefit of the doubt" who fly the Confederate flag? Coski has an answer for that point of view:
It is a fundamental mistake to believe - as Carol Moseley-Braun suggested in her 1993 speech in the U.S. Senate - that one's own perception of a flag's meaning is the flag's only legitimate meaning. . . . People must not impose their interpretation of the flag on others or project their interpretation of the flag's meaning onto others' motives for displaying it. Just because someone views the flag as a symbol of racism does not give him the ethical right to assume that someone who displays it is a racist. To make such a judgment is an exercise in prejudice. [Emphasis mine.]
Not only is the assumption "a fundamental mistake", it, by necessity of logic, transfers that same assumption and guilt to many more organizations and persons than just the one displaying the flag.


Michael Bradley said...

Very well put, Richard. There is a principle which has stood this nation well, even from before the time we were a nation. In public discourse it has been the rule to say "I disagree with every syllable you utter but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Unfortunately, many seen to have abandoned this principle and have made of themselves godlike arbiters of what any statement means.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Professor. It's impossible to take them seriously as historians or even serious students of history when they make such statements.