Sunday, May 14, 2000

When the U.S. Postal Service set out to honor famed delta blues singer Robert Johnson with a commemorative stamp a few years back, officials there discovered he had a politically inconvenient habit: He smoked. To commemorate him in the act of smoking, they thought, would send the wrong signal to impressionable nonsmokers. So they decided to commemorate a different, less flawed Johnson by removing the cigarette from the picture on which the stamp was based; they airbrushed history. A more extreme version of this practice occurred in the Soviet Union where the names of disgraced officials were purged from government records. It was as though they had never existed.

One can’t help but recall these tactics in light of current events to airbrush the Confederacy from government buildings and memorials. In South Carolina, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is demanding not just that the Confederate battle flag come down from the top of the state’s Capitol, but are complaining that a compromise location next to a Southern history monument isn’t acceptable either. In Richmond, still another chapter of the organization is demanding a halt to the practice in which the last three governors George Allen, Doug Wilder and Jim Gilmore have issued proclamations recognizing April as Confederate History Month. Never mind that there are comparable proclamations for Black History Month and holidays for civil rights leaders like like Martin Luther King Jr. Nothing will do, for some activists, but that the Confederate proclamations end and the Confederate flags come down. (One wonders how much longer statues to Confederates on Richmond’s Monument Avenue or in Alexandria will stand before they too become targets of activist ire and are pulled down.) Threats of economic boycotts follow, enforced by threatened boycotts against businesses and organizations that don’t abide by the original boycott. Some doubtless regard the threats as economic justice, others as an economic mugging.

The point here is not to sort out the competing claims of each side but to suggest that there is room for both in government observances. Mr. Wilder, the grandson of slaves, commemorated both Confederate hero Robert E. Lee and Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in his version of the proclamation. In so doing he effectively acknowledged both activists’ claim that the Confederacy was primarily about the promulgation and defense of slavery and that of the sons and daughters of the Confederacy who regard its actions as nothing more than an honorable defense against a Northern aggressor. Mr. Gilmore did much the same when he recognized both King and Confederates Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on separate days.

The very worst solution, however, would be to attempt to airbrush the Confederacy out of government memorials and other nominal places of honor. It’s ahistorical and smacks of the worst kind of political correctness.

The irony is that this debate is going on even as countless people gather in the countryside on almost any weekend to re-enact the valor and bloody sacrifice of soldiers on both sides of the war. Ultimately it was a “lost cause” for the South, but it should not be a forgotten one whatever the politics of the moment may be.

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