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.

Methodology

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.

Hypothesis:

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?,” http://www.scv.org/eligibility.php

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

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

http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?aid=2

33 Comments:

At 11:14 AM, Anonymous Er said...

Sarah,

YOu might consider having a look at the site where I operate discussion forums, www.cwdgonline.org. If you look for posts by a guy who posted under the moniker "JT", you will find that the neo-Confederate movement is alive and well in an SCV camp in Buffalo, NY. I had to ban the guy because I got tired of him using MY website to promote his neo-Confederate agenda.

I think that you've got an excellent start here, and I look forward to updates.

Eric

 
At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Eric Wittenberg said...

That last comment was by me. I hit the "enter" key too soon. Sorry.

Eric

 
At 7:06 AM, Anonymous SCV Member said...

Interesting blog. I'm always interested in anything to do with the civil war, especially in the area of Bartow County, Georgia. I'm an active member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV).

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At 11:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 10:52 PM, Anonymous SCV Member said...

A good read. I'm looking for info on the civil war and anything related to it.

Regards,

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