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The confederate flag is often a litmus test in society. For some it is symbol of pride. The kind of thing people affix to their car bumper or tattoo on their arm. For others it is symbol representing an ugly sentiment that falls along a spectrum of racial intolerance and outright hate.

HEAR MORE on NPR’s Morning Edition as Michele Norris and Jesse Dukes discuss his Six Words: Must We Forget Our Confederate Ancestors.


LISTEN to the Story from NPR’s Morning Edition.

Jesse dukes wanted to explore the territory between those two psychological tent poles when he decided to embed with a group of Civil War reenactors during a reporting assignment for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His reporting assignment was summed in the Six Words he sent to The Race Card Project: “Must We Forget Our Confederate Ancestors”.

We explored that question in an in-depth interview with Jesse Dukes on NPR’s Morning Edition. Every so often Michele Norris dips into the inbox at The Race Card Project with NPR Producer Walter Ray Watson to produce radio segments for Morning Edition. Jesse decided to explore the answers to his six word question: “Must We Forget Our Confederate Ancestors” while marching and fighting and living alongside a group of Confederate reenactors at the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg – an event Dukes said was like the “Woodstock of reenacting”. Dukes said he does not have any confederate ancestors that he’s aware of, but most of the reenactors did. One of the things he wanted to understand was whether people who felt a strong connection to the confederacy also felt connected to the full history of what the confederacy represented.

“All of the reenactors I talked to consider slavery to be an abomination, considered Jim Crow to be evil and espoused no prejudice against people of color,” Dukes said. “They’re proud of their forebears. They imagine their ancestors as brave and noble people, and they say things like those boys weren’t fighting for slavery. They were fighting for states’ rights and freedom. And in certain individual cases, they might be correct, even if the Confederacy collectively fought to preserve slavery. Historical arguments aside, if white southerners wish to oppose racism today, what responsibilities do they have toward the past? Must they forget or renounce their Confederate Ancestors? Is there a way they can honor their memory and the vastness of their sacrifice, while still acknowledging the racism of the 19th century south, and the horrors of slavery?”

Overall, the answers Jesse Dukes discovered were complicated and prickly and fascinating. That could also describe the reaction to the radio segment. It generated robust discussion on our website and on twitter. We hope you listen to the NPR Morning Edition segment and read the except below from the full article in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Also, take the time to scroll to the bottom of this page to see a large sampling of the Six-Word Submissions we receive that deal with Confederate history from all kinds of perspectives. And as always, we’d love to hear your thoughts and YOUR Six-Word Story on race or cultural identity. Our inbox is always open….and always interesting.

1013x1500xvqr_sum14_full-issue_3.jpg.pagespeed.ic.flLhk-SAlfREAD Lost Causes by Jesse Dukes in the Virginia Quarterly Review

Excerpt – The reasons Confederate soldiers fought are varied, complex, and have changed over the years. One reason that reenactors don’t seem to mention very often is that few had a choice. The Conscription Act, passed in April of 1862 once the Confederacy realized they were in for a long war, required all healthy, eligible males between eighteen and thirty- five to serve for three years.

There were exemptions for those who could afford to hire substitutes, or worked in certain trades, but a poor white farmer who wanted to avoid conscription had very few options. Some chose to join the Union army instead, and many were killed in the attempt. The “boys” who charged up Culp’s Hill might not have had slavery in mind at the moment, but I doubt they were much concerned with states’ rights, either.

Not that the individual motivation of any given soldier matters much in making sense of the causes of a war. Several weeks after my trip to Gettysburg, I share some of my interview excerpts with Ed Ayers, the president of the University of Richmond, a leading scholar of the Civil War, and somebody who talks a lot with white Southerners about the legacy of the war.

He says white Southerners (and their diaspora) very much want to be proud of their Confederate ancestors, but are troubled by the centrality of slavery to the Civil War. So they imagine their ancestors out of the context, as valiant individuals, not personally invested in slavery. “We don’t have an essential self that’s out of historical context. We all live in history. Every day. The Confederate soldier lived in history. He was the inheritor of millennia of slavery, and that was at the moment it came to conflict, and he was on the side that would have perpetuated it.” That doesn’t mean we have to imagine Confederate soldiers as evil, but it does raise the question of what we celebrate when we celebrate them.