This question was on my mind recently, when I wrote an article for Virginia Quarterly Review about Confederate reenactors at the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg. I don’t actually have any Confederate ancestors I’m aware of, but most of the reenactors do. All of the reenactors I talked to considered slavery to be an abomination, considered Jim Crow to be evil, and espoused no prejudice against people of color. But, they feel a powerful connection to the Confederacy because of their heritage; because their great-great-great-grandfather marched up a hill in Gettysburg or some other battlefield and watched his friends get shot, or got shot himself. They’re proud of their forebears. They imagine their ancestors as brave and noble people, and say things like “Those boys weren’t fighting for slavery, they were fighting for state’s 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?
Listen to Jesse Dukes’ story NPR’s Morning Edition.