Here’s a quick quiz culled from our contemporary culture wars: Who said, “There are two sides to every story, two sides to a conflict, and while it would seem simple to record and report history, it has alwaysbeen open to different interpretations”?
A. An NAACP officialB. A La Raza activistC. A Sons of Confederate Veterans memberIf you said “A” or “B,” you’re wrong. The statement comes to us courtesy of John A. Griffin, the “History Education Project Coordinator” for Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp No. 674 in Moultrie, Ga.Griffin’s comment highlights a rich irony: When it comes to the Civil War, Southern white conservatives have become America’s leading tribunes of historical relativism. And as we approach the 150th anniversary of the war, we should all be on our guard against that.Relativism holds that history is subjective: The way we judge the past depends on where we stand in the present. And for most of American history, relativists have aligned with the left more than the right.There were good historical reasons for that. Until the 1960s, history was told primarily as a divinely ordained saga of heroic white men. Women, African Americans, and other minorities appeared in cameos at most.Consider the centennial commemorations of the Civil War, starting in 1959, which stressed the sacrifice and eventual reconciliation of Northern and Southern whites. In the face of a new communist enemy, the argument went, Americans needed to unite again.”The wounds of the deep and bitter dispute which once divided our nation have long since healed,” declared President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In their wake stood “a united America” that had much to teach “a divided world.”Left unmentioned were the enslavement of African Americans and the civil rights movement then gaining steam. “We’re not emphasizing emancipation,” the head of the federal Civil War Centennial Commission declared flatly. “The story of the devotion and loyalty of Southern Negroes is one of the outstanding things of the Civil War.”Indeed, he added, the Confederate Army was about to add “an entire regiment of Negroes” when the war ended. Insofar as blacks mattered, then, they simply reinforced the theme of white heroism and benevolence.Of course, blacks didn’t see it that way. From their perspective, the “War Against Yankee Oppression” (as Southern whites sometimes called it) was a war to preserve slavery and white supremacy. “This whole Civil War centennial commemoration is a stupendous brainwashing exercise … to strike a blow against men of color and human dignity,” civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph complained.Over the next four decades, African Americans would chip away at the whites-only version of America’s past. Everyone has his own history, they said, and ours is different from yours. By the end of the 1960s, universities were forming black-studies programs, and black-history courses arose in high schools.These efforts added much nuance and complexity to historical understandings of the African American experience. And they provoked a reaction among white conservatives, who rallied around the idea of a single objective truth.That’s why the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed a law in 2006 requiring schools to teach history as “factual, not constructed.” An earlier version of the bill was even more pointed: “The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth.”But as we near the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, white conservatives are indulging in their own relativism. Look again at John Griffin’s statement: There are two sides to every story; we have our history, and you have yours.There’s just one problem: Theirs is false. Although no historical interpretation is perfectly objective, some versions of the past are closer to the truth. And others are simply lies.Consider the well-worn myth that Southern blacks favored the Confederacy or even fought on its side. This canard reared its ugly head again last fall, when a Virginia historian discovered that her daughter’s fourth-grade history textbook referred to two battalions of African American soldiers who supposedly served under the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson.The textbook’s author later confirmed that she gleaned this information from, yes, the Sons of Confederate Veterans. And it’s not true.Nor is the group’s much-repeated claim that the Civil War was fought mainly over “states’ rights,” not slavery. Like the business about black Confederate soldiers, that’s a naked attempt to whitewash racism out of history. And no serious historian believes it.The Sons of Confederate Veterans has every right to promulgate its version of history. But the rest of us have a right—and a duty—to rebut it. These Southern white conservatives are correct about one thing: history is always a matter of interpretation. But that doesn’t make all interpretations equally correct.
Jonathan Zimmerman’s article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
That’s History is a biweekly radio segment co-produced by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and WHYY featuring HSP historian Jonathan Zimmerman. That’s History takes an event, issue or person in the news, and looks back into history for echoes, parallels, roots and lessons.