Sunday, October 29, 2006

Project Prospectus

I've decided to reproduce my thesis prospectus here in order to give readers a better sense of what my project is trying to accomplish. I am also hoping that those of you who are reading this blog (is anyone reading this blog? the number of comments I've recieved would indicate no) can help me along in this project with your suggestions.

The Question

My thesis seeks to answer the following question: how is the radicalization and organizational shift that is occurring in the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) altering the physical landscape of Richmond, Virginia?
The United Confederate Veterans (UCV) was established around the time of redemption, as an enactment of the "Lost Cause" –the idealized, Southernized Civil War narrative. Under such a mythology "the war was fought to defend states' rights and to protect a chivalrous antebellum way of life from Northern aggression." [1] According to this retelling, the Civil War was not fought over slavery, but was merely a defense of the Southern "way of life." This logic saw slavery as a "benevolent institution" –to be a slave in the South was far preferable than to be a wage earner in a Northern factory. By erecting monuments to fallen Confederate generals, organizing memorial parades, and laying flowers on the graves of Confederate dead, the UCV and its sister-organization, the Untied Daughters of the Confederacy, made sure the Lost Cause myth would be around for future generations.

Around the turn of the century, as the numbers of Confederate veterans started to dwindle, the UCV changed its name to the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). According to its bylaws, the SCV is open to "all male descendents of any veteran who served honorably in the Confederate armed forces." [2] Proof of genealogy must be presented before a member is inducted into an SCV camp. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil-rights watchdog organization, as of 2004 the SCV had 36,000 members, the majority clustered in the Tidewater states of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
However, a new, increasingly radical leadership in the organization had caused an exodus of one quarter of the SCV's members by the end of 2004. According to Heidi Beirich, a journalist at the SPLC who has been covering the recent changes in the SCV, the heritage organization had taken great pains since the 70s to distance itself from its Jim Crow past.[3] Since 2004, however, a new, more radical leadership has taken over the organization. The SPLC reports that when current president Denne Sweeney took over, about 300 moderate commanders were purged from the organization for "criticizing racism in the SCV." [4] In response many alternative and more moderate heritage groups have been spreading throughout the South, the Virginia-based Sons of Confederate Soldiers.
In Richmond, this radicalization can be seen through conflicts over three public spaces: the Arthur Ashe monument on the Confederate-lined Monument Avenue; an erection of a monument to Abraham Lincoln at Tredegar Iron Works –a former Confederate munitions factory; and, most recently, a funding crisis at the Museum of the Confederacy.
All three of these conflicts are fought with a racially-charged tinge in the majority-black city of Richmond. From an outsider’s perspective, the SCV is largely seen as an ideological monolith solely interested in propagating pro-Southern, racist sentiment. This is largely how the black community in Richmond, city leaders included, views the organization.

Believing they are oppressed by a liberal, politically correct majority, hard-line SCV members have become more radical in their beliefs. Indeed, the most hawkish factions of the SCV have framed their arguments in terms one normally reserves for talking about slavery or the holocaust. They have called the crusade against the Confederate flag a form of “ethnic cleansing;” they admonish members to ‘never forget’ the supposed historical injustices leveled upon the South. This extreme rhetoric would seem to justify branding the entirety of the SCV as a fringe group. The SCV becomes defensive, and the cycle of radicalization repeats itself.

How is it important

The SCV has been a powerful influence in the South since it's founding in the late nineteenth century. Many local, state-level, and even national politicians are members of the SCV. Little scholarship approached the SCV from a "balanced" perspective: some academics, especially in the early twentieth century, wrote about the SCV in language that assumed the veracity of the Lost Cause myth the organization propagated. After the Civil Rights movement, the attitude changed and members of the SCV were portrayed as slave-masters by association, especially by Northern academics. This, I believe, is still the prevailing attitude. My project, thus, seeks to add to the existing scholarship on the SCV. And such scholarship is needed now, not only because past efforts at assessing the organization have been fraught with biases, but because the organization is changing in dramatic ways.

Secondly, the SCV has been a powerful influence in molding the physical structure of many Southern cities, Richmond foremost among them. Indeed, the most famed street in RichmondMonument Avenue –was created and is still maintained by SCV members as a paean to the Lost Cause. From a Durkheimian perspective, a study of the sacred symbols or a group or of a region can further our understanding of the group's identity. I hope that an understanding of Confederate and Lost Cause symbols can complicate the way Northerners view Southerners, and can illuminate the various narratives employed by Richmonders to understand their Civil War heritage.

This thesis is also about power –specifically, the power to determine the historical record. One major source of contention in the SCV is the National Park Service’s (NPS) decision to include slavery as cause of the Civil War in all of its battlefield literature. So far, the SCV has been unsuccessful in getting the NPS to change its policy. Nevertheless, the push for the change in policy at the NPS has further confirmed the perception of the SCV as a racist organization.


My question can be answered only through a qualitative assessment of the relationship between the SCV and Richmond at large. This summer I went to Richmond and conducted interviews with SCV members, Museum of the Confederacy affiliates, National Park Service members, members of the preservation community, and city residents. Additionally, I will be looking at letters to the editor written by SCV members, as well as reactions to those letters. I will also talk to people who have defected from the SCV and have formed their own, more moderate, heritage organizations. Fortunately for me, the rift in the SCV may well mean that more people will be willing to talk to me in order to defend their position, or to indict the stance of their ideological opponents.


Roughly, I expect my argument to take the following shape: In the 1980s and 1990s, the SCV took a more moderate stance and tried hard to distance itself from its Jim Crow past. However, the erection of the Arthur Ashe statue in 1996 was a polarizing event for many members of the SCV. Detractors and supporters of the statue would become the radicals and “grannies” of the organization. This polarization was most vividly seen in 2003 during a controversy over the erection of a statue to Abraham Lincoln. Radicals of the SCV compared a statue of Lincoln in Richmond to a statue of Osama Bin Laden at Ground Zero. Moderates were ashamed to be part of an organization that would so strenuously object to a Lincoln statue. Meanwhile, the SCV had purged more moderate members from its ranks as a new, younger and bolder leadership assumed power. I will conclude that the Museum of the Confederacy is the real victim of the SCV scandal: radical elements of the SCV have bred distaste for all things Confederate in Richmond; however, even the most virulent neo-Confederates refuse to support the museum because its message isn’t sufficiently pro-Confederate. I hope to place these fairly recent events in the larger context of debates over historical memory and public space in the South.

[1] Cynthia Mills, “Introduction,” in Monuments to the Lost Cause: Women, Art, and the Landscapes of Southern Memory, ed. Cynthia Mills and Pamela H. Simpson (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 2003), xxvii.

[2] Sons of Confederate Veterans, “Who Can Join?,”

[3] Heidi Beirich, telephone interview by author. Cambridge, MA, September, 29 2006.

[4] “Neo Confederates: SCV Purges Moderates,” Intelligence Report, Spring 2003,

Monday, October 23, 2006

Britain and the Confederacy

Right now I'm slowly drafting a "plan of study" for fellowship applications. In the highly unlikely event that I'm actually selected for a fellowship, I will be studying at Cambridge during the 2007-2008 academic year.

Much has been made of Britain's relationship with the Confederacy during the war years. Though Britain never officially recognized the Confederacy, the rebel state nonetheless drew support from much of the British media and aristocracy during the war years.

Indeed, all of the major newspapers in England, including the pretigious Times of London, supported the Confederacy. RJM Blackett, in Divided Hearts: Britain and The American Civil War, notes that:

"The editors of the London Times, no lovers of the Union, were adamant that very few people of social or political standing had allied themselves with the Northern cause. The newspaper labeled members of the executive committee of the London Emancipation Society as a “few struggling obscurities,” a “half dozen nobodies,” who believed that Robespierre was right."

This speaks to a fundamental question surrounding the Confederacy: to what extent was the South considered unique by outside powers? In addition to being a question of economics and international relations, British (unofficial) recognition of the Confederacy is a question of identity. Was the South considered culturally distinct by outsiders?

But as Blackett's study is a testimony to, there already exists much scholarship on the question of British-Confederate relations during the war years. My proposal is to study British perception of the demise of the Confederacy from 1866-WWI. My searches have yielded very few papers devoted to that topic.

So right now, I'm trying to convince a fellowships commitee that it is imperitive that I go to England to study late 19th century British public opinion on the South in order to ultimately better understand questions of Southern identity. Seem like a stretch?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Birthday Blog

Today is my birthday, but does that stop me from blogging? No, and neither does my extremely thriving social life.

Anyway, I'm just back from a thesis-writers workshop. So far, the thing has been pretty useless, but I'm optimistic that once people have produced drafts and chapters, the peer-review process will do its magic. In the mean time, we've been priming the pump by reading the writer's version of a self-help book: Joan Bolker's Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day.The most important message I took away from (selectively) reading this book was that inspiration does not usually come before behavior. That is, you might have to write a lot of drivel before a good idea bursts forth from the pages. This blog notwithstanding, this is not how I have usually approached writing in the past. The book also stressed the importance of writing drafts and revising work. This is something, frankly, that I'm terrible at. I have a very difficult time rearranging and revising things that I've written. Does anyone have any suggestions for ways to approach a draft?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Sex Panic in Birth of a Nation

This weekend I had the unmitigated displeasure to watch that gem of the silent screen, Birth of a Nation (BoaN).

Just some background, BoaN was actually based on a best-selling novel by Thomas Dixon. The novel, The Clansman, was actually part of a trilogy of books that celebrated the South, while simultaneously promoting a new, nationalist consciousness. It was into this sea of American pride (pride that would oftentimes border on chauvanistic and xenophobic) that Birth of a Nation premiered. After all, the film's title suggests that a new consciousness, specifically one premised on white supremacy, was born after the Civil War.

BoaN was a huge success. From its premier in 1915 until 1937 (the year Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out) it was the most profitable film of all time. And it was technically innovative, using dissolves, deep focus and jump-cuts.

But what was most salient to me while watching the film was its focus on white male sexual panic. Of course, the desire to protect white womanhood was a motivating factor in the formation of the Klan. However, I didn't think that a film from the early twentieth century would so nakedly (forgive the pun) deploy sexuality as a justification for black subjugation.

I was reminded of the films I had watched last semester for my Nazi Cinema class. The film Jud Suss (Jud Süß) comes to mind. Though that movie chronicles the manipulations and machinations of a Jewish adviser to a Duke, both films rely upon the idea that certain groups pose a threat to a woman's sexual purity.

Both reach their dramatic apex when a reviled character violates or attempts to violate an innocent white woman.

The motif of the dangerously sexual black male continues to exist. Indeed, one (white) man I interviewed this summer was very luridly obsessed with black sexuality. Interestingly, the motif of the Jewish male's sexual prowess seems to have died out completely.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

My Long Absence

I have not posted in over ten weeks for several reasons. First, I was overcome by laziness and inertia. Secondly, school started again and things got hectic. Thirdly, I didn't think my thoughts would be that interesting since I was no longer doing research in the trenches.

But then I realized that I don't blog for you. I blog for me. And blogging will help me organize my thoughts and will help me write a better thesis.

Let me tell you where I'm at. My thesis topic gets ever smaller by the day. Despite spending the bulk of my time this summer in Atlanta, I have decided to abandon the Atlanta bit for now. I'm going to focus solely on Richmond.

The question my research seeks to answer is: How has the recent radicalization in the SCV impacted the physical landscape of Richmond. For now I am focusing on three incidents: the erection of the Arthur Ashe statue, the controversey over the Lincoln memorial at Tredegar, and the recent funding crisis at the Museum of the Confederacy.

I hope that this thesis will touch upon the role of public spaces in determining public memory. I will also be addressing the role of race in power in determining the historical record.

I realize that all of this probably sounds like academic mumbo-jumbo right now. Hopefully as I get writing I can flesh out these ideas, and then distill them in a bloggable way.