A War of Words 

The latest battle seems to be over who controls the memory of the South, but suddenly no one’s talking

The latest battle seems to be over who controls the memory of the South, but suddenly no one’s talking

In his history of the Civil War, Shelby Foote writes that the “last” battle took place at Palmito Ranch, Texas, in May 1865—more than a month after Appomattox. It was a two-day battle, and neither side won. There were 115 casualties. Communication systems were primitive in those days, and the combatants hadn’t heard the news that the war was over. Some still haven’t.

he battle these days is over who controls the memory of the South. The struggle last year was between the Margaret Mitchell Trust and author Alice Randall over Randall’s black version of Gone With the Wind, titled The Wind Done Gone. The latest skirmish is over the renaming of Confederate Memorial Hall on Vanderbilt University’s Peabody campus. Communication is lightning quick these days, and that’s one of the problems.

The most recent chapter in the story was a forum on the Vanderbilt campus this week. Two of the principals didn’t show: Tim Chavez, the Tennessean columnist who’s been tracking the issue since September, and Jonathan Farley, assistant mathematics professor at Vanderbilt whose Nov. 20 “Nashville Eye” piece in The Tennessean sent the controversy into overtime. Nor did anyone from the heritage side—the sons and daughters of the Confederacy.

Author John Egerton was there to moderate the discussion, but there was not much to moderate. Egerton—author of Speak Now Against the Day, an epic book about the forgotten generation of civil rights workers before the movement got going in the 1950s and ’60s—is no stranger to the Southern culture wars. He pointed out that the word “Confederate” carries heavy baggage and is often a code word for racism. Egerton reminded the group that Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, incoming majority leader, paid tribute to Strom Thurmond at his 100th birthday party by saying that if the whole country had voted for Thurmond in 1948 we’d all be better off today. In his encomium, Lott didn’t recall that Thurmond ran on a segregationist platform. Al Gore called for Lott to resign. Lott explained that he was honoring Thurmond the man, not the principles he held more than a half century ago. But some words are fighting words, as Vanderbilt officials have discovered.

Three years ago, Vanderbilt’s Student Government Association passed a resolution urging a name change for Confederate Memorial Hall. There was no action during the final years of the Joe Wyatt administration. But when Gordon Gee became chancellor, deferred changes started to happen.

In May, Vanderbilt officials announced their decision to remove the name “Confederate” from the building and, therefore, from college bulletins and maps. The timing was no coincidence. Student and faculty vacations have a way of blunting discord.

But this controversy survived the long hot summer. In September, the student newspaper, The Hustler, broke the story. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), which had contributed $50,000 toward the $150,000 construction cost of the building on the Peabody campus 65 years before, sued to recover their original contribution, plus interest.

Reaction on campus was mixed. A Hustler poll found almost one-third of its student sample “didn’t care” about the name change, almost half were OK with it and 20 percent were against it.

This is where Tim Chavez entered the fray, in a Sept. 21 column blaming Vanderbilt officials for an excess of political correctness. He called for someone to “educate Vandy officials” about the history of good intentions in the UDC. After all, he reasoned, the UDC was only trying to “lift the South by supporting the education of more teachers.” Chavez didn’t mention that those teachers would all be white, and that the UDC’s motives were not entirely free of “political correctness” either.

In 1935, when the daughters gave the money for the building, the UDC had a policy of policing textbooks for Southern schools, editing out any version of the War Between the States (their preferred name for the conflict) that didn’t demonize the Yankees and whitewash the South. The war was not about slavery, the UDC catechism said. Slaves were happy and well-treated, the overwhelming majority loyal to their people. The Vanderbilt history department sponsored an Oct. 18 forum to discuss the history of the building and the UDC, correcting misinformation about the daughters and the re-naming of the building. The event went unreported in The Tennessean.

Eventually the heritage hit the fan. The “Confederate” removal made the wire services and the Web sites of Southern heritage groups. It’s been the subject of newspaper editorials and letters to the editors. That’s because the “un-naming” is what the Sons of Confederate Veterans would call a “heritage violation.” Someone has taken the name of the South in vain.

Then, in a Nov. 20 Tennessean op-ed piece, Jonathan Farley—Vandy assistant math prof, African American and this year’s Green Party candidate for the 5th Congressional District—offered a highly opinionated view. Farley charged the Confederate Army with treason (historically correct) and wrote that they should all have been hanged—a politically charged but not original idea, since many members of Andrew Johnson’s Republican Party felt the same way after Appomattox and the assassination of Lincoln.

Farley’s column was immediately declared “hate speech.” He was not allowed the escape that Trent Lott used. Heritage groups heated up the Internet with messages to Vanderbilt and Farley calling for his firing or, in some cases, his death.

But that wasn’t the final shot. Chavez brought the whole issue back last Sunday on his opinion page. In a long article professing to regret the hate, Chavez reprinted a hostile e-mail message Farley sent by way of reply to one Gary Waltrip, identified by Chavez only as a CPA in Hollister, Calif. Waltrip is also the proprietor of the Web site “rebelgray.com,” on which Waltrip had posted Farley’s e-mail. Chavez reprinted the Californian’s original message to Farley, containing a couple of taunting statements calculated to light any African American’s fuse. By this time, what had started as a decision to rename a campus building had become a battle over academic freedom and First Amendment free speech, as Chancellor Gee explained in an op-ed piece in the same issue of The Tennessean.

The Monday forum moderated by Egerton was to be the summit, but neither Chavez nor Farley nor the heritage crowd appeared. It was just Egerton engaging the students who showed up. It’s too bad they weren’t there to hear Egerton urge Vanderbilt not to change the name of the building. Being very theoretical, Egerton even suggested erecting a bigger historical plaque at Confederate Memorial Hall explaining more of the building’s and the UDC’s history—sort of like the history one young black woman relayed at the forum. She explained that Confederate Memorial Hall is on the Peabody campus close to the site of the former Roger Williams University. She pointed out that this was a school for the training of African American ministers, and that it was burned down. The history of the South is arson, she said, and church burnings are still happening.

In all of this hoohah, there has been a lot of smoke but not much light, salvos of rhetoric but too little speech that might actually inform, enlighten or persuade. Not that anything spoken in the culture wars is supposed to change anybody’s mind. The point of words in a culture war is simply to rally your side. You use history like Mel Gibson’s Scots used their privates in Braveheart.

Maybe it would be a good idea to take Egerton’s advice and replace the old plaque with a new one, even if it covers the whole building. The last line of the old inscription, though, is worth saving: “Dedicated to the education of teachers for a region sorely in need of them.” The UDC got that part right.

Michael Kreyling is a professor of American literature at Vanderbilt University.

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