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civil war

Education

A teen student delivered a masterclass on the true history of the Confederate flag

Christopher Justice broke it down into incredible details most of us probably weren't even aware of.

Six years ago, a high school student named Christopher Justice eloquently explained the multiple problems with flying the Confederate flag. A video clip of Justice's truth bomb has made the viral rounds a few times since then, and here it is once again getting the attention it deserves.

Justice doesn't just explain why the flag is seen as a symbol of racism. He also explains the history of when the flag originated and why flying a Confederate flag makes no sense for people who claim to be loyal Americans.

But that clip, as great as it is, is a small part of the whole story. Knowing how the discussion came about and seeing the full debate in context is even more impressive.



In 2015, a student at Shawnee Mission East High School outside of Kansas City came up with the idea to have student journalists document students engaging in open discussions about various topics. In support of this idea, history teacher David Muhammad helped arrange a debate about the use of the Confederate flag in American society in his classroom.

According to the Shawnee Mission Post, Muhammad had prepared a basic outline and some basic guiding questions for the discussion, but mainly let the students debate freely. And the result was one of the most interesting debates about the Confederate flag you'll ever see—one that both reflects the perspectives in American society at large and serves as an example of how to hold a respectful conversation on a controversial topic.

The full discussion is definitely worth a watch. Justice had quite a few Confederacy defenders to contend with, and he skillfully responded to each point with facts and logic. Other students also chimed in, and the discussion is wildly familiar to anyone who has engaged in debate on this topic. For his part, Mr. Muhammad did an excellent job of guiding the students through the debate.

"I had Chris in class, so I knew he was super intelligent and that he read a lot," Muhammad told the Shawnee Mission Post in 2018. "But that really came out of left-field. He was never out there very much socially, so I didn't expect for him to want to speak in front of a crowd like that."

(In case you're wondering, according to LinkedIn, Christopher Justice is now studying political science at Wichita State University after switching his major from sports management. David Muhammad is now Dean of Students at Pembroke Middle School and also serves as a Diversity Consultant.)

Thanks, SM East, for documenting and sharing such a great discussion.


This article originally appeared on 08.05.21

In the years following the bitter Civil War, a former Union general took a holiday originated by former Confederates and helped spread it across the entire country.

The holiday was Memorial Day, and the 2018 commemoration on May 28 marks the 150th anniversary of its official nationwide observance. The annual commemoration was born in the former Confederate States in 1866 and adopted by the United States in 1868. It is a holiday in which the nation honors its military dead.

Gen. John A. Logan, who headed the largest Union veterans fraternity at that time, the Grand Army of the Republic, is usually credited as being the originator of the holiday.


Civil War Union Gen. John A. Logan. Photo via the Library of Congress.

Yet when Logan established the holiday, he acknowledged its genesis among the Union's former enemies, saying, "It was not too late for the Union men of the nation to follow the example of the people of the South."

Cities and towns across America have for more than a century claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day.

But I and my co-author Daniel Bellware have sifted through the myths and half-truths and uncovered the authentic story of how this holiday came into being.

During 1866, the first year Memorial Day was observed in the South, a feature of the holiday emerged that made awareness, admiration and eventually imitation of it spread quickly to the North.

During the inaugural Memorial Day observances in Columbus, Georgia, many Southern participants — especially women — decorated graves of Confederate soldiers as well as those of their former enemies who fought for the Union.

Shortly after those first Memorial Day observances all across the South, newspaper coverage in the North was highly favorable to the ex-Confederates.

"The action of the ladies on this occasion, in burying whatever animosities or ill-feeling may have been engendered in the late war towards those who fought against them, is worthy of all praise and commendation," wrote one paper.

On May 9, 1866, the Cleveland Daily Leader lauded the Southern women during their first Memorial Day.

"The act was as beautiful as it was unselfish, and will be appreciated in the North."

The New York Commercial Advertiser, recognizing the magnanimous deeds of the women of Columbus, echoed the sentiment. "Let this incident, touching and beautiful as it is, impart to our Washington authorities a lesson in conciliation."

To be sure, this sentiment was not unanimous. There were many in both parts of the U.S. who had no interest in conciliation.

But as a result of one of these news reports, Francis Miles Finch, a Northern judge, academic and poet, wrote a poem titled "The Blue and the Gray." Finch's poem quickly became part of the American literary canon. He explained what inspired him to write it:

"It struck me that the South was holding out a friendly hand, and that it was our duty, not only as conquerors, but as men and their fellow citizens of the nation, to grasp it."

Finch's poem seemed to extend a full pardon to the South: "They banish our anger forever when they laurel the graves of our dead" was one of the lines.

Almost immediately, the poem circulated across America in books, magazines and newspapers. By the end of the 19th century, school children everywhere were required to memorize Finch's poem.

[rebelmouse-image 19398143 dam="1" original_size="237x305" caption="Not just poems: Sheet music written to commemorate Memorial Day in 1870. Image via the Library of Congress." expand=1]Not just poems: Sheet music written to commemorate Memorial Day in 1870. Image via the Library of Congress.

As Finch's poem circulated the country, the Southern Memorial Day holiday became a familiar phenomenon throughout America.

Logan was aware of the forgiving sentiments of people like Finch. When Logan's order establishing Memorial Day was published in various newspapers in May 1868, Finch's poem was sometimes appended to the order.

It was not long before Northerners decided that they would not only adopt the Southern custom of Memorial Day, but also the Southern custom of "burying the hatchet."

A group of Union veterans explained their intentions in a letter to the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph on May 28, 1869:

"Wishing to bury forever the harsh feelings engendered by the war, Post 19 has decided not to pass by the graves of the Confederates sleeping in our lines, but divide each year between the blue and the grey the first floral offerings of a common country. We have no powerless foes. Post 19 thinks of the Southern dead only as brave men."

Other reports of reciprocal magnanimity circulated in the North, including the gesture of a 10-year-old who made a wreath of flowers and sent it to the overseer of the holiday, a Col. Leaming in Lafayette, Indiana, with the following note attached, published in The New Hampshire Patriot on July 15, 1868:

"Will you please put this wreath upon some rebel soldier’s grave? My dear papa is buried at Andersonville, (Georgia) and perhaps some little girl will be kind enough to put a few flowers upon his grave."

Although not known by many today, the early evolution of the Memorial Day holiday was a manifestation of Abraham Lincoln's hope for reconciliation between North and South.

Lincoln's wish was that there be "malice toward none" and "charity for all." These wishes were clearly fulfilled in the magnanimous actions of citizens on both sides, who extended an olive branch during those very first Memorial Day observances.

This story originally appeared on The Conversation and is printed here with permission.

On Aug. 17, Donald Trump started the day as only he could: with a full-throated defense of the Confederacy.

Responding to renewed calls to remove Confederate monuments around the country, Trump decried action, defending them on aesthetic (yes, the man who plates everything in gold and slaps his name on it has thoughts on style) and historical grounds. Sigh.

While Trump might not take advice from those in the #FakeNewsMedia, there's one person he should hear on this issue: Robert E. Lee.

Yes, that Robert E. Lee. Confederate Gen. Robert. E. Lee.


As it turns out, he had some thoughts on whether these monuments should be built in the first place. In short, he was against it.

Charlottesville, Virginia's Robert E. Lee statue was the center of a recent march by white supremacists. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

In a December 1868 letter, Lee addressed a proposal to build a monument in his honor:

"As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated; my conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the Country, would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating its accomplishment; & of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour. All I think that can now be done, is to aid our noble & generous women in their efforts to protect the graves & mark the last resting places of those who have fallen, & wait for better times."

In other words, monuments celebrating the Confederacy would only serve to further divide the newly-united United States and slow down any progress that had been made. Given that we're still arguing about monuments and flags more than 150 years since the war ended, Lee seems to have been absolutely right.

We don't need monuments celebrating the Confederacy to remember the Civil War, and nobody is erasing history by suggesting they be removed.

Some may argue that monuments glorifying Confederate soldiers are necessary if we want to avoid making the same mistakes and going to war with ourselves once again. That simply doesn't make sense.

Germany has managed to remember the Nazis without erecting statues of Hitler throughout the country. In fact, the country made a concentrated effort to eliminate anything that could become the center of a neo-Nazi pilgrimage. They went so far as to turn the place where Hitler died into a parking lot.

Moreover, it's worth noting that the monuments themselves are not historical artifacts. Many are relatively recent creations. In fact, 32 Confederate monuments in the U.S. were build in just the past 17 years, several of which were in Union states. Going back further, many of these monuments were built as anti-black backlash to the civil rights movement. The same goes for Southern affinity toward the Confederate battle flag, which only rose in the 1950s and 1960s, again, in protest of the civil rights movement.

Confederate monuments and the Confederate flag have less to do with the actual Civil War and much more to do with opposition to civil rights.

[rebelmouse-image 19530767 dam="1" original_size="750x478" caption="A 1969 photo of the carving at Stone Mountain, featuring Jefferson Davis, Robert E Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. Stone Mountain was the birthplace of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915. The carving wasn't completed until 1972. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images." expand=1]A 1969 photo of the carving at Stone Mountain, featuring Jefferson Davis, Robert E Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. Stone Mountain was the birthplace of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915. The carving wasn't completed until 1972. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images.

If the goal truly is to avoid another Civil War, the answer isn't to pepper the country with statues, but to stop teaching a sanitized version of history.

The Civil War was fought over slavery. Period.

Take it from Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, who in March 1861, said slavery and "the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization" was "the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution," referring to the war. He added, "[T]he negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."

It seems straightforward, and yet a 2015 Marist poll found that just 53% of Americans agree that slavery was the driving force behind the Civil War, with 41% disagreeing with that statement. Some may argue that it was really about "states' rights," but "states' rights" to do what exactly? To own slaves.

We do need to stop sanitizing our history, and that must begin with acknowledging that our country has an ugly past. Lee doesn't need your monuments, and he will never, ever be forgotten.

Let’s put this argument to rest and commit to better education, not ahistorical glorification.

James Madison is known as the "father of the Constitution." But while he and the convention delegates built the country on paper, slaves were building it everywhere else.

Today, Madison's historic home Montpelier is open to the public. Visitors can explore the mansion, the Madison family cemetery, acres of picturesque hills, and learn more about Montpelier's enslaved community by touring slaves' quarters.

The mansion at Montpelier. All images via James Madison's Montpelier, used with permission. Photo by Pam Soorenko.


Montpelier is the first presidential home to honor the lives and contributions of slaves with a Juneteenth celebration.

Juneteenth is an annual celebration honoring Major General Gordon Granger and Union soldiers who arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news that all slaves were officially free. The news came in 1865, more than two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and months after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Granger delivered the joyous announcement on June 19, 1865 and Juneteenth (June + Nineteenth) began.

The celebration at Montpelier on June 17, 2017, was open to the public and included music performances, special tours, historical reenactments, lectures, kids activities, and more.

Photos by Eduardo Montes-Bradley.

But perhaps the best thing about Montpelier's Juneteenth celebration was its guest list.

Descendants of James Madison's slaves and other black families known to live in the area at the time were all invited.

Leontyne Clay Peck is one of the descendants. She grew up in West Virginia, but after moving to nearby Charlottesville, Virginia, 14 years ago and digging into her genealogy, she discovered her ancestors were from the area.

"I felt very comfortable in Madison County and ... my spirit felt very familiar when I was at Montpelier and this area in general," she says. "I know now that's because of my ancestors."

Leontyne Clay Peck at Montpelier.

Today, Peck is active in the Montpelier descendant community. Three years ago, she even took part in an archaeological search on the property to uncover artifacts near the slave quarters. For Peck, it was a spiritual experience.

"When I was touching the dirt and digging, I felt close to the people who were there. Maybe that could have been my relative or someone else's relative," she says. "I felt very comfortable, like the ancestors were saying, 'Don't forget about us. We were here.'"

Montpelier archaeological dig site. Photo by Pam Soorenko.

This year's Juneteenth marked the first time many of the descendants saw a new exhibit on Montpelier's enslaved community.

"The Mere Distinction of Colour," which opened June 5, is a multimedia installation offering visitors the chance to hear stories of slaves at Montpelier told by their living descendants. It also includes some of the artifacts excavated by volunteers and archaeologists at the site. The exhibition studies slavery and its political and economic impact through the lens of the Constitution, a large part of James Madison's legacy.

Top: The slaves cabins in the South Yard. Bottom Left: A recreated slave cabin. Photo by Pam Soorenko.  Bottom Right: Visitors tour the exhibition.

Celebrating the lives and contributions of enslaved people is what Juneteenth is all about.

Whether you're at a presidential home, a neighborhood block party or somewhere in between, take a moment June 19 to honor their memory. Enslaved people built America and their descendants sustain America. For that, we are forever grateful.

Joy abounds at Juneteenth. Photo by Eduardo Montes-Bradley.