REPORT ON 2009 LETTER TO OBAMA CONCERNING THE ARLINGTON CONFEDERATE MEMORIAL – Ed Sebesta 10/17/09
I started researching neo-Confederates in 1991, and have become aware of the ways the Federal government aids and enables neo-Confederacy.
Currently the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), a racist organization, is an eligible charity in the Combined Federal Campaign, an equivalent of the United Way, for Federal employees. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), another racist organization, gives awards named after Confederates to cadets in the American military service academies. President William Clinton sent no less than three separate letters of congratulations to the UDC in less than a year after Carol Moseley Braun successfully denied the UDC renewal of their Patent for their design. Recently the SCV announced an intention to get involved in the Junior ROTC in the schools of South Carolina.
A recent issue of the Confederate Veteran, an official publication of the SCV, has the following photo caption:
“The Colonel James J. Searcy Camp 1923, Columbia, MO, hosted a visit by the US. Army Staff Ride Class to the Centralia, MO, Battlefield and massacre site in connection with their class instruction. More than 40 active NCO members participated. They were all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.”
In the photo you can see the officers, many of them African American, standing around a Confederate monument with the Confederate battle flag marked on it. If you enlist with the U.S. Army you might end up attending an event organized by the SCV.
Finally, there is the wreath that is annually sent to the Arlington Confederate Monument by the President on Memorial Day.
Federal support for neo-Confederacy legitimizes state and local support for neo-Confederacy.
I have not yet compiled a comprehensive list of all the ways the Federal government supports and enables neo-Confederacy but, following the publication of my co-edited book “Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction,” (University of Texas, 2008), I decided to start writing to my elected representatives to attempt to put an end in to these practices. I wrote letters both to my congressional representative Eddie Bernice Johnson and President Barack Obama about the SCV attempting to get involved with JROTC and the UDC giving awards to cadets at the U.S. service academies and I did not get any response from Rep. Johnson and only a non-specific form card thanking me for my opinion from President Obama.
Following these initial letters I decided to target the annual ceremony at Arlington, and hoped that on Memorial Day (25 May 2009) no Presidential wreath would be sent to the Confederate Memorial. Collaborating with James Loewen, we drafted a letter and form for signatures.
Our letter explaining the Confederate ideology inherent in the Arlington Confederate memorial sculpture and its origins, and criticizing the practice of laying a Presidential wreath, initially gathered 21 signatures during the week prior to Saturday 5/16/09. I had a few contacts and I started pulling books off the shelf of my history library of authors I thought would be sympathetic and started to email them. On Saturday 5/16/09 I both faxed the letter and a table of the co-signers, and delivered hard copies through the United States Post Office and United Parcel Service (UPS), to the White House. Following that mailing James Loewen contacted people he knew for signatures. On the Wednesday, 5/20/09, prior to Memorial Day, I faxed a longer list of signatures, a copy of the letter and a copy of an article about the letter published on History News Network. I did a final fax to the White House on Friday, 5/22/09. While gathering these signatures we also sought media coverage for our letter. James Loewen, Michael Phillips, and Frederick Clarkson all helped with getting press coverage. In total there were 66 co-signers of our letter.
The story first broke on the History News Network on Tuesday, 5/19/09, through James Loewen’s efforts. The History News Network published our letter in its entirety and a partial list of the co-signers. Then journalist Judy Pasternak, who I had been working with, published an article on The Daily Beast news site (5/21/09). The Dallas Morning News decided to run a story, written by Marjorie Korn, who Michael Phillips had been working with, on Sunday, 5/24/09. This article ran on the same day in the Seattle Post Intelligencer and the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. James Loewen and I then got calls from the Associated Press, which ran the story. Throughout this week prior to Memorial Day, other media picked up the topic: ABC News, for example, covered the story and carried the text of our letter on their website on 5/23/09.
As our letter gained publicity, one of our co-signers, who taught at a Christian private school, became the target of neo-Confederate activists who emailed the head of that school complaining about the letter and signature, even though the History News Network stated on their web page with our letter that the institutional affiliations were for identification purposes only. One of our co-signers was Bill Ayers. The media focused on this, which distracted from the message and arguments of our letter, and gave the impression that our effort and assessment of the Arlington Confederate monument was that of extreme radicals.
In my attempt to get signatures, I emailed Kirk Savage, professor of Art History at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of "Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America" (Princeton University Press, 1997). He did not want to sign, and suggested to me that Obama send a wreath to the Confederate monument and to make some other compensatory observance. I didn’t agree with him and explained why. Following our correspondence, on Saturday, May 23, 2009, before Memorial Day, the Washington Post published an article about the Arlington wreath laying by Savage:
Many of my colleagues in academia are urging President Obama to pull the plug on this tradition. I doubt that he will, for the simple reason that the men buried around the Confederate memorial sacrificed, suffered and died just as the black and white soldiers of the Union did. Most of the descendants of those Confederates, whatever their political stripe today, would be loath to deny their ancestors a simple gesture of recognition.
In my opinion, Savage avoided the issue that the Arlington Confederate monument obscures the issue of slavery and glorifies the Confederacy: the monument isn’t just funereal. Savage's Washington Post essay recommended that President Obama send a wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial in addition to the Arlington Confederate Memorial. On Memorial Day, 25 May 2009, Obama did just that. He additionally sent wreaths to the mast of the USS Maine and the Spanish-American War Memorial in Arlington Cemetery.
The story and the controversy over sending the wreath was covered by CNN, the Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Times, http://www.politico.com/, ABC News, and the Washington Times, among others, on May 25, 2009, as the issue of the Arlington Confederate monument and the wreath became part of the general news coverage of President Obama’s observances of Memorial Day.
Coverage typically mentioned three key elements of the debate over our letter. First, that President Obama was going to continue to lay a wreath at the Confederate memorial in Arlington, despite our letter. Second, that President Obama, indirectly responding to our letter, became the first president to send a wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial, albeit, I think, as token compensation for sending a wreath to the Arlington Confederate monument. Third, President Obama, ignoring the comments about neo-Confederate ideology outlined in our letter, touched on the Civil War and used some “Romance of Reunion” themes in his Memorial Day speech, a speech which was reported in the media as a response to our letter. Obama stated:
"Those who rest in these fields fought in every American war. They overthrew an empire and gave birth to revolution. They strained to hold a young union together. They rolled back the creeping tide of tyranny, and stood post through a long twilight struggle. And they took on the terror and extremism that threatens our world’s stability.
Their stories are the American story. More than seven generations of them are chronicled here at Arlington. They’re etched into stone, recounted by family and friends, and silently observed by the mighty oaks that have stood over burial after burial.
To walk these grounds then is to walk through that history. Not far from here, appropriately just across a bridge connecting Lincoln to Lee, Union and Confederate soldiers share the same land in perpetuity. (emphasis added)"
The sections highlighted, particularly the last paragraph, are reminiscent of language regarding the Civil War during the early twentieth century which obscured the issues of slavery and race, and yet we continue to hear it two generations after the modern civil rights era.
The SCV sent a message of congratulations to President Obama for sending the wreath. This is somewhat hypocritical since the SCV in the Southern Mercury, the publication of their educational foundation, had hysterical articles predicting race war if Obama got elected.
In the week following Memorial Day, Lonnie Randolph, head of the South Carolina NAACP spoke out denouncing President Obama’s decision to send a wreath to the Arlington Confederate memorial. In an article in the Charleston Post and Courier, 5/29/09, Randolph said that he was drafting a letter to send to Obama condemning his decision to send a wreath to the Arlington Confederate memorial. In turn Lonnie Randolph was attacked by Randall B. Burbage, commander of the South Carolina State SCV division. Burbage claimed that Randolph's comments were an “attack on the country’s heritage” and “pitting South Carolinians against each other.” Given the articles of the SCV publication, Southern Mercury, Burbage’s comments are truly hypocritical.
Additional articles were run on the History New Network about the Arlington Confederate Memorial, one by James Loewen on 5/28/09 and another on 6/15/09 by Ron Maxwell, one of the speakers at the Arlington Confederate memorial. Maxwell’s speech was also on Huffington Post. A video of Maxwell’s speech is online at the Stephen D. Lee Institute of the SCV.
President Obama has not, as of 10/13/09, replied directly to our letter about the monument.
In general I have contradictory assessments of the results of the letter. This view is not shared by my co-writer James Loewen and is mine alone.
On the positive side it is probably better known now than it has been for decades that there is an Arlington Confederate monument and that presidents have been sending wreaths to it. Also, the ideology behind the monument is now known to at least some people, whereas before, excepting a few neo-Confederates, it wasn’t widely known. Additionally, by reading our letter online many more people also know that there is a neo-Confederate movement. This is an initial step in making the public aware of the federal government’s support for neo-Confederacy.
On the negative side, President Obama, by sending a wreath to the Arlington Confederate monument, has legitimized Confederate monuments in general. The neo-Confederates are very keen to have the Confederacy be legitimized by finding and promoting African Americans who praise the Confederacy or at least deny that there is anything negative in honoring the Confederacy. What better African American to do this than the first African American president? Neo-Confederates also keep track of acts of the presidents that can be used to defend Confederates and the Confederacy. For example, the public may not be aware that President Eisenhower had a picture of Robert E. Lee in the Oval Office, but neo-Confederates are.
Additionally, sending a wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial establishes the principal that one gesture compensates for another. Observing the past becomes a racial balancing game. Instead of an action being judged on its own merits, in this case by our commitment to civil rights and racial equality, it becomes a matter of doling out favors to be equaled out between groups. For example, someone might speak at a function of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens (http://www.cofcc.org/) but claim it was okay since they were also scheduled to speak at a fundraiser for the United Negro College Fund.
Finally, President Obama’s speech legitimized what should be discredited; the Romance of Reunion language of the early 20th Century, a period described by James Loewen as the 'nadir' of U.S. race relations.
However, further reflecting on Obama’s action of sending a wreath to the African American Civil War memorial, I think there are some positives to it. This is very likely going to be an annual observance by President Obama for the rest of his term of office, and I doubt that following presidents will want to cease this observance, if only to avoid controversy. Also, each year when a wreath goes to the African American Civil War memorial the historical narratives on how this annual presidential observance came to be will involve our letter. Since Obama sent the wreath to the African American Civil War memorial in response to our request not to send a wreath to the Arlington Confederate memorial, the historical narrative also can have implications that the African American Civil War memorial is in opposition to the Arlington Confederate monument and thus suggest an abolitionist meaning to the Civil War and possibly puts a potential tension of opposites into the annual Memorial Day observances.
The additional wreaths also raise the question of why not more wreaths. If there is a wreath for one Civil War memorial for Union soldiers who are African American why not more wreaths for other Civil War Union soldiers who were not? What veterans of what wars are overlooked now? Why not a wreath for the veterans of the Mexican American War, the Barbary War? There is the potential for some historical group or hereditary organization to ask for a wreath for their chosen monument and excavate for a future discussion the Memorial Day changes in 2008 and bring to the public’s attention the historical narrative of what happened then. So I see that for a couple reasons the discussion of the issues raised in our letter will continue into the future.
The historical narrative also raises a question about what happened next for the opposition to the Arlington Confederate memorial. A question we need to answer before the next Memorial Day.
I think that President Obama’s failure to reply directly to our letter is inexcusable. Yet, our letter did have an impact. Although a wreath was laid at Arlington, Obama took time to change the presidential memorial tradition in response to our letter; he took time to modify his speech in response to our letter; and, the White House took time to tell the press that they were going to ignore our letter's suggestion that no wreath be placed at the Arlington Confederate memorial.
When dealing with issues of race so far in his Presidency, Obama does have time to have beer with Sgt. Crowley, the officer who arrested Professor Henry Louis Gates at his home recently in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has also countered Jimmy Carter’s statements that the intensity of the hostility against him is based on race. Yet, he doesn’t have the time to answer a thoughtful letter concerning the continued display of white supremacy evident in the USA's very landscape.
In the 1950s, John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. Senator, responded to Blanch Ames Ames’ letter complaining about his white supremacist views of Reconstruction in his book, “Profiles in Courage,” specifically in regards to Aldebert Ames, Reconstruction-era governor of Mississippi. She merely was a single prominent individual. As President, Kennedy had a White House counsel respond to a follow up letter by Blanch Ames Ames complaining about a forthcoming TV series based on his book.
Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower took the time to reply on August 18, 1960 in a letter to a letter by a Dr. Scott criticizing his having a portrait of Robert E. Lee in the White House.
In contrast, the White House announced that Obama was going to ignore the message of Confederate symbolism and white supremacy at the Arlington monument that our letter described because, I believe, he had no good answer to the points raised our letter. I could be wrong, but because Obama has chosen opacity over transparency, that is, chosen to ignore us, and not to reply to us, by necessity we have to rely on our own speculations as to his motives.
I plan to send another letter next year to President Obama or take some other action and have started a blog: http://arlingtonconfederatemonument.blogspot.com/.
However, there are several possible avenues of action to pursue the issue of presidents sending wreaths to the Arlington Confederate monument and the Federal government’s support of neo-Confederacy. I solicit input from the readers of this report.
One possible action is another single letter for 2010, with co-signers with a different focus and scope. It could be the various ways the Federal government supports neo-Confederacy (including the wreath sent to the Arlington Confederate monument) or the historical opposition of African Americans to Confederate memoralization.
Another possible approach is to not have one letter, but different letters, some with and some without co-signers sent to President Obama. Having more than one letter accommodates differing viewpoints on how to approach the subject. I would though very much like to have a copy of all letters.
Perhaps there could be a panel on the issues involved with Civil War memoralization could be conducted in Washington, D.C. with an invitation to President Obama. These suggestions are not mutually exclusive.
I would be interested in suggestions as to what future course of action should be taken. If you have suggestions please email them to me. I hope to have an effective effort in 2010. I hope to have the support of the signers of the 2009 letter.
Finally, I have carefully archived in a file box, the letter, the records of faxing, signature forms, mailings, news articles, White House web pages, neo-Confederate web pages, blog pages, and all the historical records that I was able to find concerning the Arlington Confederate monument, and anything else relevant regarding our efforts to ask President Obama to not send a wreath to it in May 2009.
 http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-09-11/joe-wilsons-rebel-yell/; http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?pid=258; I don’t agree with these sources that the SCV was formerly focused on “heritage,” but later became a racist organization, my own research shows otherwise.
 http://www.blackcommentator.com/274/274_clinton_udc.html, the information in this article about the UDC is accurate, I supplied it myself.
 I have tracked this practice back at least back to 1967. In the May 2009 issue of United Daughters of the Confederacy Magazine, the President General lists a Robert E. Lee award at U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis; the Lt. Gen. Claire L. Chenault award at the U.S. Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs; the Matthew Fontaine Maury award at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point; the Stonewall Jackson award at the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington; and the William Porcher award at the Citadel, Charleston.
 http://www.blackcommentator.com/274/274_clinton_udc.html, I also supplied copies of Bill Clinton’s letters.
 http://sonsofconfederateveterans.blogspot.com/search?q=Jrotc, it is item No. 12 on the list.
 No author, no title, Confederate Veteran, Vol. 64 No. 3, May/June 2006, pp. 39, lower left corner.
 Kirk Savage, Washington Post, May 23, 2009, “The President and the Confederacy,” www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/22/AR2009052202999.html, printed out 5/23/09.
 Cable News Network, “Obama asks Americans to remember fallen troops,” http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/05/25/obama.memorial.day/index.html?iref-newssearch, printed out on 5/21/09.
 Barack Obama, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-on-Memorial-Day/, printed out 5/24/2009/
 See: http://sonsofconfederateveterans.blogspot.com/2009/05/scv-pleased-with-obama-sending-wreath.html
 Rev. Robert Slimp, “Americans Face The Worst Presidential Candidates in History,” Southern Mercury, Vol. 6 No. 3, May – June 2008, pp. 28-33. As it became apparent that the next president would be Obama, Slimp had published in the same periodical, “Will The 2008 Election Bring the End of the America We Know?,” Vol. 6 No. 4, July – August 2008, pp. 34-37.
 Yvonne Wenger, The Post and Courier, May 29, 2009, “State NAACP leader blasts Obama,” www.postandcourier.com/news/2009/may/29/state_naacp_leader_blasts_obama84128/, printed out 5/29/09.
 Blanche Ames Ames, “Adelbert Ames: Broken Oaths and Reconstruction in Mississippi: 1835-1938,” Argosy-Antiquarian Ltd., New York, pub. 1964, pp. 556-62, 566-67.
 Rachel C. Larson, et al., authors, “American Republic for Christian Schools,” 2nd Edition, Bob Jones University Press, Greenville, South Carolina, pub. 2000, pp. 328. In this text book, Eisenhower’s having a portrait of Robert E. Lee and defense of Lee, is used by the text book to defend and glorify Lee. John Hope Franklin in a letter to me in 1991 told me that he had written a letter published in the Washington Post criticizing Eisenhower for his portrait of Lee in the White House. I spent some houses going through microfilm but have not found Hope’s letter.
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