State Senator Robert Ford of Charleston, SC began the first week of Black History Month with an effort to pass a legislative mandate that would officially make Confederate Memorial Day one of the state’s paid holidays. According to the Associated Press:
Years ago, Ford said, he pushed a bill to make both that day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day paid holidays. He considered it an effort to help people understand the history of both the civil rights movement and the Confederacy in a state where the Orders of Secession are engraved in marble in the Statehouse lobby, portraits of Confederate generals look down on legislators in their chambers and the Confederate flag flies outside.
“Every municipality and every citizen of South Carolina, should be, well, forced to respect these two days and learn what they can about those two particular parts of our history,” Ford said Tuesday.
Having lived in South Carolina for a few years, I was outraged when I heard this news, particularly given that Senator Ford is African American. I twittered my frustration with expletives and exclamation marks: WTF South Carolina!? Why do we insist on finding new & improved ways to make this state look backwards & stupid!!! If we’re ever going to stop being the butt of South Park’s jokes, then surely our politicians need to find something, anything, better to do.
Now, days later, I’m not as angry. Just puzzled.
What is being presupposed by the parallel Senator Ford makes between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Confederacy? Are these “two particular parts of our history” analogous or oppositional? This pairing seems to confuse historical periods and create the illusion that the racial politics involved are interchangeable, equally legitimate, and have similar consequences.
Furthermore, doesn’t the bill’s juxtaposition erroneously mark King Day as a “black” holiday, or arguably, as a “Yankee” one? I question whether or not it might be more effective to devote our state’s resources to educating its citizens about the fact that King worked on behalf of mutual equality and respect for Americans of every race, ethnicity, and region.
Perhaps the real goal is to acknowledge “white southern heritage.” If so, then is honoring the Confederate dead the most meaningful way to accomplish this goal? Why focus on military defeat? Are there not accomplishments in the cultural arts, music, food, and literary production, or in science, medicine, and technology, or in education and philanthropy that South Carolinians should know about? (Tell us about your white southern George Washington Carvers, Charles Drews, and Barbara Jordans!)
It is interesting to read how these unanswered questions play out in the Associated Press article. Rather than try to disentangle the subtext at work, the report conveniently sets the SC President of the NAACP and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans at odds. But is it just me, or does it sound as if the two are having different conversations?
“Here Senator Ford is talking about the importance of race relations by forcing recognition of people who did everything they could to destroy another race — particularly those that look like I do,” [Lonnie] Randolph said. “You can’t make dishonor honorable. It’s impossible.”
Ron Dorgay, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member from Elgin, said race relations have moved far from hatred but he hopes Ford’s bill brings more understanding of the state’s past.
“Even in school systems, they don’t teach the correct history,” Dorgay said.
Read closely and perhaps you’ll agree that Randolph and Dorgay’s views aren’t necessarily incompatible. However, Senator Ford’s bill doesn’t begin to address either of their concerns in a meaningful way. I agree with the NAACP leader that “you can’t make dishonor honorable.” I also know, as a teacher, that the complexities of the state’s history are rarely given the attention deserved. But only someone who is satisfied with the SparkNotes version of race relations in the South can argue that we will “bring people together” by using Confederate Memorial Day as a state-sanctioned counterbalance to the American Civil Rights Movement.
Recently Senator Ford has received a lot of press for pushing bills to outlaw profanity and saggy pants in order to “attract spirited discussion.” But like the Confederate battle flag, he is merely a symbol of a particular approach to problem-solving that seems embarrassingly antiquated in the Obama Era. Shouting matches over memorials and flags – and the desperate band-aid solutions they generate - are not a substitute for the difficult work of understanding our shared past. Furthermore as an Orangeburg, SC paper points out, while this mandate may comfort lawmakers, it actually shifts the burden to state residents to “choose” which day to stay at home and watch television learn about South Carolina’s racial history.