Jacob Walker’s students grew up seeing the Confederate flag everywhere — on T-shirts, on keychains, and on cars. He teaches Mississippi studies, world history, government, and economics at a Mississippi high school. After Gov. Phil Bryant’s controversial decision to (R) declare April Confederate Heritage Month, Walker read his students, who are mostly African American, the language of the proclamation.
“I had some students who were upset about it, saying, ‘Why should we be celebrating this?’ So some students were upset and other students, it didn’t bother them much,” Walker said. “I really don’t have students who complain about the state flag or Confederate flag as much as maybe people think they do, because it’s been there their whole life. I don’t want to say they’ve become numb to it, but it’s something that has just always existed.”
Confederate Heritage Month is not something history teachers are required to talk to their students about, but some teachers said there could be a potential benefit — that the declaration could function as an opening to talk about the way in which the Confederacy is portrayed, as more of a concept of Southern pride and a romanticized vision of the Antebellum South period, between the 1780s and 1860, that pushes the reality of slavery to the side.
The governor’s decision came after a request from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, according to The Clarion Ledger. The group also does not want to change the state’s flag, which has a Confederate symbol, and the language of the declaration does not mention slavery once, only “mistakes” in the same line “successes” are mentioned. It reads: “Whereas it is important for all Americans to reflect upon our nation’s past, to gain insight from our mistakes and our successes, and to come to a full understanding that the lessons learned yesterday and today will carry us through tomorrow if we carefully and earnestly strive to understand and appreciate our heritage …”
When leaders of the state government endorse this incomplete reading of history, the role of history teachers and professors are especially vital, and educators are bent on ensuring that young people don’t leave their classes with the misconception that supporting Confederate imagery and heritage is harmless.
Confederacy spun as ‘mom and sweet potato pie’
Last year, nine African Americans were gunned down in their church in Charleston, South Carolina by a professed white supremacist. The shooting sparked a regional conversation about Confederate imagery and the celebration of Confederate soldiers. In Mississippi, many residents are fighting to change the state flag and remove Confederate emblems that represent rebellion against the union and the primary driver of the rebellion — slavery. Mississippi is the only state that includes the battle flag in its flag design.
Darren Grem, assistant professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi, said students who support the flag usually don’t speak up in class to defend it but may support it on Facebook or Yik Yak.
“There’s silence on that in my courses… You’ll see students speaking openly [on social media] about the flag as a deracialized symbol, a symbol of southern pride, anti-government sensibilities, even a kind of sense of family and family heritage that makes the flag something of a synonym for mom and sweet potato pie,” Grem said. “It’s this idea of, yes there was slavery and yes, slavery was bad, but we’re frontloading all these other meanings in front of that and the idea that secession, and in some form in rebellion of authority, probably meaning liberal authority in Washington, is a good thing.”
It’s this idea of, yes there was slavery and yes, slavery was bad, but we’re frontloading all these other meanings in front of that.
Of course, this celebration of Confederate heritage by state governments is not at all unique to Mississippi. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) declared April Confederate Heritage Month in 2010. In 2009, the Georgia General Assembly approved a bill, which was signed by then-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, that officially made April permanently Confederate History and Heritage Month. Then-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour also signed a proclamation designating April as Confederate History and Heritage Month for 2010, but for 2010 only. In 1999, Texas’ legislature designated April Confederate History and Heritage Month, but among these states, Texas was the only one to mention slavery.
McDonnell later apologized for the major omission of slavery in the proclamation after it gained media attention, stating, “The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed… Slavery was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation.”
Barbour later defended McDonnell and said of the controversy on CNN’s State of the Union in 2010, “It’s trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t matter for diddly.”
Mississippi educators say that it is especially important to drive home the point that slavery was the main driver of the Civil War and that the Confederacy’s interest in states’ rights was inseparable from the economic interest of keeping slave labor.
Grem said that his job is to make sure that students understand the Confederate flag in the way historians understand it, as a symbol of slavery, secession, white supremacy, massive resistance to black integration, educational, economic and political rights.
“And to my students that support it, I say, ‘Just ask yourself if you would like to be affiliated with those types of sensibilities and more importantly, do you want to be affiliated with a sensibility of perpetual divison and perpetual rebellion?’” Greg said. “I just want to push them and ask them, ‘What are you rebelling against? What are you for?’ And ask them to reflect on that because that sort of rebellion has been couched in a sense of division or winning against others and others losing, so who are those others and are you comfortable with that, their loss?”
Do you want to be affiliated with a sensibility of perpetual divison and perpetual rebellion?
Walker teaches Mississippi studies, which explores the history of Native Americans, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement. He says that although he is sure to touch on all of the discussions about how the Confederacy viewed the federal government, he is sure no one leaves his class without knowing that slavery was the main reason for the Civil War and driving force behind the Confederacy.
“During the part about the Civil War, we definitely had discussions about the causes and the reasons for the war, and we’ve had debates on whether it’s about slavery but I don’t think anyone believes or could say, at least in my classroom, that slavery was not the major driving force behind it. We also make sure to talk about the idea of federalism and states’ rights, but I don’t think I’ve ever taken my eye off slavery being a major reason,” Walker said.
What supporting Confederate heritage means for students of color
The decision to declare April Confederate Heritage Month at a time when state governments are deciding to take down Confederate flags flying over their state houses seems to encourage those who wish to cling to the symbol. Universities across the country are having discussions about whether or not to change the names of buildings because those names belonged to slaveowners and people who supported white supremacy, which is why students are fighting to take Woodrow Wilson’s name off Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson”>Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. It’s a particularly relevant question in universities in southern states where Confederate soldiers may be prominently displayed on campus. At the University of Mississippi, students are also pushing against similar historical figures.
Last fall, the university’s student government voted to remove the state flag from university grounds. Contrary to how the Mississippi governor portrayed the vote at the time, Grem said it was a student-led effort.
“It wasn’t faculty who came in and said you need to get this flag off campus. That was students who were, and not just students of color, but a lot of white students, that were tired of seeing this kind of stuff at an institution of higher learning,” Grem said.
He said an example of this was the move to include a plaque providing more historical context to a Confederate statue on campus. Grem said there is a real clash between many students who come to the university seeking a “neo-Confederate experience” because the architecture of many of the buildings on campus is reminiscent of the Antebellum South and students attending the university for quality of education and other reasons. He said that although racist incidents are happening at universities all over the country, embracing Confederate imagery doesn’t help to create a welcoming environment for students of color. Grem said students of color and professors of color often don’t feel safe on campus, citing one incident where a black female faculty member had a student yell the N-word at her in a passing car.
“They typically happen at Ole Miss when things are most heated. It’s not something I hear about on a typical Wednesday or in February when students are more concerned about exams. I have heard from other African American students that you have to stick together and for good reason because they’re worried about that about what might go down,” Grem said. “No one wants to be walking back from their car or walking back to their dorm at night and have a bunch of white boys drive by and yell something at you. That’s not supposed to be a part of their campus experience.”
Walker points out that supporters of Confederate heritage are forgetting that not all students have the privilege of knowing their lineage. From doing family tree projects with students, Grem sees that often, his students can’t point to an ancestor past a great grandparent and describe who that person was, making the celebration of “heritage” particularly painful.
“I’ve never heard any of my students say, ‘My great, great grandfather was a slave in Mississippi,’” Walker said.