Recent history-based TV shows; Time travel, Gilded Age New York, strong women, and the really, really, Wild West

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Clockwise from top left: NBC’s Timeless, TNT’s The Alienist, Netflix’s Godless

Recently, the University of Alabama hosted a screening of The Free State of Jones, featuring comments and a Q&A with historian Victoria Bynum, the author of the book on which the film is loosely based. It was interesting to see the film for a second time, as it validated most of the perceptions I had after my first viewing (you can read the review I wrote then here), although I felt the Reconstruction scenes worked better upon a second viewing than I did initially. If you have not seen it yet, be sure to catch it on disc or cable.

Anyway, the event got me thinking about more recent Hollywood stabs at history. During this past award season, exceptional films like Dunkirk and Darkest Hour received much warranted awards and nominations (I highly recommend them both, and Gary Oldman was stunningly effective as Churchill). But ever since the cancellation of PBS’s Mercy Street and WGN’s Underground it seems to me that there has been a dearth of quality, high-profile history-based dramas on television.

(Thankfully, it appears that the creators of HBO’s Game of Thrones have backed away (at least temporarily) from their proposed series featuring an alternate timeline in which the South wins the Civil War, turning their attentions instead on a new set of Star Wars films. I like that idea MUCH better).

Still, in the last few months there have been three big budget TV shows that have caught my attention: The second season return of NBC’s Timeless, TNT’s limited series, The Alienist, and the best of the three, Netflix’s limited series, Godless.

The first season of Timeless was pretty harmless fluff, featuring a few episodes that were truly riveting. I’m not a big fan of conspiracy-driven shows (the stand-alone episodes of The X-Files are the best ones, and I’ll debate anyone on that). Thus, Timeless’s focus on an Illuminati-like organization’s attempt to control the world (“Rittenhouse”) became a bit annoying as our three time traveling heroes (Abigail Spencer, Malcolm Barrett, and Matt Lanter) unraveled more and more of the shadow ageny’s secrets and reasons for trying to alter history.  Further, Spencer’s character, historian Lucy Preston, was depicted as far too much of an expert on every period of time in history, having readily retrievable knowledge about minutia that only a specialist on a particular topic would have (to be fair, the show can’t have a regiment of historians, each with their own specialities). These quibbles aside, I watched almost all of the first season as mindless entertainment. You can catch up with it all by streaming it on Hulu.

NBC was ready to cancel the show after one season, but it was saved by social media outcry (which I wish could have saved the much more valuable Mercy Street), and thus season two premiered last Sunday. The first episode took our heroes into World War I in the midst of American troops fighting at St. Mihiel.


The cast of Timeless fires back up their time machine. It is not exactly a DeLorean, . . . or a hot tub .

As usual, the producers did their homework and got much of the details correct, focusing on Marie and Irene Curie (just in time for Women’s History Month), their nursing efforts, and their technologically advanced mobile X-ray. NBC’s budget was reflected in the nice visuals of a charred WWI landscape, and quick glances at aerial dogfights over the trenches. It all looked pretty good and bodes well for future episodes.

Yet the thing that has me the most excited about the second season of Timeless is that Smithsonian is going to be commenting each week on each episode’s historic accuracy. That should prove interesting to follow.

But speaking of time travel, I have always joked in my classes that whenever I hear blowhards like Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck criticise the progressive movement, I wish I could put them in a time machine and drop them somewhere in Gilded Age New York. I wonder how they would feel about Progressivism after living in the fetid slums, working in a sweatshop in disgusting  and dangerous conditions for god-awfully long hours and unfairly low pay, all while seeing the “robber barons” ostentatiously displaying the unprecedented wealth they derived from the misery of the impoverished. I have a feeling the progressive movement might appear a little bit more appealing to them, and perhaps it would give them a different outlook on current events.

(PBS recently aired an American Experience episode on the Gilded Age, disappointingly focusing almost exclusively on the barons and almost completely ignoring the era’s racial dynamics).

Anyway, it is this Gilded Age New York that TNT’s The Alienist effecitvely re-creates. Set in 1896, the limited series is about a psychologist (Daniel Bruhl), a newspaper journalist (Luke Evans), and a police stenographer (the always effective Dakota Fanning) teaming up with two police detectives (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear) to track down a serial killer. Based on a series of novels that are themselves based loosely on actual people, the show depicts the use of then cutting edge investigative techniques, such as finger printing and criminal profiling. The events are completely fictional, but the world the characters inhabit is stunningly and accurately brought to life.

One of The Alienist’s merits is how Fanning’s character, Sara Howard, is career-driven in a place and time when women pursuing a professional career were a rarity.


Fanning as Sara Howard and Brian Geraghty as Theodore Roosevelt in The Alienist

She confidently pushes back at workplace condescension and mistreatment (#MeToo in 1896), and yet simultaneously and realistically deals with her conflicted desires to adhere to societal pressures to fall in love, quit work, and start a family. Fanning’s performance in the role of a woman ahead of her time, protecting herself behind a bland and no-nonsense exterior, is a strength.

As a fan of Theodore Roosevelt, I especially enjoy his presence as the NYC Police Commissioner determined to clean up police corruption and take on both political and criminal bosses. This is accurate, though actor Brian Geraghty plays Roosevelt as too subdued, depriving the show of the energetic gusto that it sorely lacks. TR was a force-of-nature, and thus his personality should dominate every scene in which he appears. Sadly, that is not the case. Yet The Alienist captures TR’s virtues and has some good scenes between him and JP Morgan (Micheal Ironside, in some good makeup) that nicely foreshadow the hostility the men would have towards each other when TR ascended to the White House and battled Morgan’s horizontally integrated banking trust.

Unfortunately, ten episodes has proven too long to tell the show’s story and after eight episodes I am anxious for it to end (yet still hoping the ending will be rewarding). It is dark and brooding, increasingly disjointed, and besides Fanning, lacks performances that keep you glued to the screen. I’m still hooked, but it feels a little like a slog.

Yet it is still compelling television that you should catch because of how well it depicts Gilded Age New York and what it says about that time in our history. From the ridiculously ornate and ostentatious homes of the super wealthy, to the slums and seething nastiness of the streets, the enormous disparity between classes is impressively demonstrated in The Alienist, reminding us of how Progressivism eventually saved American capitalism from itself.

You can catch up with the series by streaming it at TNT’s site.

From a purely entertainment perspective (but not historical), however, the best of these recent shows is Netflix’s limited series Godless. Set in a Gilded Age western town in which most of the men have been killed in a mining disaster, the show was advertised as a feminist take on the Western, as the women run the town and defend themselves from some VERY bad men. [Warning: the trailer below drops one F-bomb]

Yet that’s not exactly what you get. In the end, Godless is a pretty standard Western dominated by dastardly but complex bad guys, and emotionally traumatized good guys. Which isn’t a bad thing, it is just not as advertised (which is not the fault of the show’s creators).

I discovered Godless because of historian Megan Kate Nelson’s article for the Civil War Monitor about the lack of Civil War battles and campaigns in western movies. Of course she is right, although I think she is a bit harsh on Sergio Leone’s cinematic masterpiece, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and her discussion of how Civil War animosities do often drive the tensions in many western films glaringly misses such classics as The Outlaw Josey Wales and Shane. 

As with those classics, almost every character in Godless is interesting and well acted, and in my mind the series rivals Lonesome Dove as riveting television (yes, it is that good). It also manages to deliver some surprises, one of which is its rather conventional ending. Yet unfortunately, the show’s most interesting characters are the ones that are explored the least—the females—which is all the more frustrating given how the series was advertised. Getting an even bigger shaft is a local community of former Buffalo Soldiers! Ugh! What could have been!

Yet the most troubling aspect of Godless is the level of graphic violence. The “Old West” has always been romanticized and depicted as more violent than it actually was. In the wake of the Florida school shooting and the fresh energy that high school students have injected into the gun control movement, this sort of depiction of the West is all the more untimely (to be fair, it was released before the events in Florida).

Gun control laws have been common throughout the history of the United States (look for an upcoming article about this from me soon) and in fact were pretty rigorously enforced in Western towns.  Yet Godless indulges in just about every cliché we have ever had about the “Wild West” frontier, and ramps it up to a ridiculous level.

The villains, (led by Jeff Daniels in a wickedly good performance) go around doing things that would have brought down upon them the full weight of the US government and military.


Jeff Daniels leads some VERY bad men in Godless

Since the show is set in New Mexico, a student of history can’t help but think about how the territorial governor (Civil War general and author of Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace) got directly involved in the capture of Billy the Kid, yet in Godless a large group of criminals is able to go around practically unopposed (except by our heroes) doing things that Billy Bonney would have never even dreamed of in his most violent nightmares. Further, the climactic battle scene is largely a nonsensical mess (though nevertheless thrilling).

Godless didn’t create our myth of the Old West, but it certainly sustains and significantly adds to it.  Still, if you can divorce yourself from all that and embrace Godless as a “shoot ’em up” with plenty of interesting characters, uniformly strong performances (particularly by Merrit Wever, Michelle Dockery, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and beautiful cinematography, do not miss this one. It is well-worth every penny you paid for your Netflix subscription.

Now, I think I’ll go watch the recent episodes of Drunk History. Did you see the one featuring the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, 1963? Brilliant, and very timely just now when we need a reminder of what younger generations have done in our history to bring power and life to a movement.


In praise of my Alabama: Doug Jones & the Crimson Tide


Alabama Senator Doug Jones happily watching the Crimson Tide’s championship victory with the D.C. chapter of the Alabama National Alumni Association at Willie’s Brew & Que

Well it has been a month since I’ve posted, and my last one was on the day of our special election here in the state of Alabama. Much has happened since then that I have wanted to blog about, but Christmas vacation trips (more on that in another blog), the new year, a writing project, and the start of the new semester have kept me too busy. I’ve finally gotten a second to breath again, so I wanted to quickly comment on the two events that have had my beloved state in the national news over the last few weeks.

My last posting was a pretty emotional one, as I was not quite sure whether my state would do the right thing by putting its normal commitment to the Republican Party aside to vote against Roy Moore and for Doug Jones. I have been voting since 1988 and I have to tell you, I never felt more exhilarated in exercising my suffrage rights than I did in voting in this senate election.

With no other elections going on, and with an enormous amount of interest in results that would have major consequences, much of the nation’s eyes were on Alabama that night.  Sadly, when my state brings national attention to itself like this it is usually something negative . . . except for football.

That’s one major reason why football is so beloved in the state of Alabama. Starting with their unexpected 1926 Rose Bowl win and 1925 national championship, and continuing into the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, the University of Alabama’s football team has been about the only thing that has brought national praise to the state.

During the Civil Rights era, Alabama appeared on television stations across the country when Freedom Riders were firebombed in Anniston, and beaten in Birmingham and Montgomery. A few years later, Americans watched in horror as police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Conner had children fire hosed in the streets of Birmingham as they demonstrated for desegregation.  Having been arrested earlier in the same demonstrations, Martin Luther King wrote his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail garnering worldwide attention.  Later that year, Alabama Governor George Wallace defied the Kennedy administration live on national television by forcing the president to nationalize state troops to integrate the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The nation was then stunned into numbness when four black children were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.16th_Street_Baptist_Churchs_Neon_Sign_(268472006).jpg And then as if for a brutal encore, the state grabbed attention again as the country watched Civil Rights marchers get pummeled and gassed marching across the Pettus Bridge in Selma while attempting to walk to Montgomery to demonstrate for African American suffrage rights.

The media’s attention on those events rocked the conscience of our nation, shaming it on a world stage during the height of the Cold War and thus leading to the Civil Rights movement’s biggest victories. Yet the black-eye brought to the state solidified people’s opinion of Alabama in ways that still very much shape outside perceptions of the Heart of Dixie.

Still,  during those very same turbulent years, the University of Alabama gained national attention because of the dramatic success of its football program under the direction of Paul “Bear” Bryant.


Bryant & Namath

Winning three national championships in the 1960s with legendary players like Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, the Tide brought adulation to the state instead of the typical scorn (they would have one a 4th in 1966, but the AP punished them for resisting integration). This of course intensified the pride and love that people in the state had for their football.

This dynamic outlived the 1960s. The state of Alabama consistently ranks near the bottom in far too many lists, such as literacy, funding for public schools, quality of life, health and healthcare, infrastructure, wealth, and tax base. Yet all the while, football continued to bring accolades as the Tide has won national championships in 1973, 1978, 1979, 1992, 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2015. Auburn too has added to the pride, winning a championship in 2010 and playing for another in 2013. If there is only one thing the state of Alabama does well in the eyes of the nation, it’s football.

And then came the special senate election in December, 2017. The campaign received an unprecedented amount of national attention, as Alabama voters had to choose between a candidate who’s politics seemingly came from the state’s ugly past, and a man who promised to keep it moving in a progressive and inclusive direction.

Roy Moore was woefully unqualified and shamefully undeserving of the job of US senator. He believes in theocracy, that America was “great” during the era of slavery, that we were better off before the 14th and 15th amendments (which made the Civil Rights era’s successes possible), and apparently believes women’s suffrage and officeholding is bad for the country. I’ve no doubt in my mind that Roy Moore would have stood with Bull Conner and George Wallace.

Doug Jones, on the other hand, also conjured up the state’s ugly past, but only because he was the lawyer that finally successfully convicted two of the KKK members responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. He is also a rather moderate Democrat with political positions that align well with Alabama values (besides abortion).


Doug Jones successfully convicting a Klansman

Those scandalous sexual allegations about Moore aside, the election thus seemingly came down to whether voters wanted to reinforce the  image of the state’s ugly past, or move boldly away from the reputation that still haunts it and shapes perceptions. The choice seemed clear, but would enough white Alabamians be able to put the state’s image and future ahead of their strong party loyalties? The whole country was watching . . .

The turnout of African American voters was of course crucial, but so too was having enough white Alabama Republicans willing to vote for a Democrat. I went to the polls that day unsure of whether we could depend on either. Still, as I looked around at the people voting in my precinct, I was hopeful when I quickly calculated that about one third of the voters I saw were blacks. My precinct here in Tuscaloosa County is actually a pretty good racial mix that’s probably a good representation of the county as a whole. I felt that if one third of people voting across the state were black, there was a chance of a Democrat victory. Yet it would also require a significant amount of white voters for Jones, and of that I was most uncertain.

Watching the returns that night was about as tense and dramatically exciting as it gets. Because the polls in the evangelical North Alabama counties came in first, Roy Moore took a lead that seemed to indicate the election was going down a predictable red path. Yet with the New York Times election meter consistently indicating a Doug Jones victory, I became cautiously optimistic.

And then there was that late surge as the returns came in from Tuscaloosa (where Wallace had defied Kennedy), the so-called “black belt” counties (where the Selma marchers were beaten), and Birmingham (where Bull Conner had once reigned with terror) . As those votes came in, the whole country watched with bated breath as Jones pulled even, took a slight lead, and then in almost an instant was declared the winner by the Associated Press and other media outlets.

The victory was exhilarating, all the more so because of the late night dramatic shift in the numbers and from where they had come. I have to tell you, I cried real tears of joy, and I can’t even recall the last time I’ve done that.

I was very proud of my state because we were in the national spotlight again, with everyone thinking that the home of George Wallace and Bull Conner was going to screw it up . . . but then, dramatically, we didn’t. African American turnout was larger than normal (how proud the Selma marchers must be!), but I believe a much larger number of white Alabamians voted for Jones than the flawed exit polls indicate.

It was as if we as a state, both black and white, collectively said, “chill out America, we got this.”

And then just weeks later, as if the state pride could not get any larger, the Alabama football team found itself in the national spotlight yet again. Looking unbeatable in the Sugar Bowl, they took down last year’s national champion in a revenge game. One week later, they found themselves in a championship game that mirrored the previous month’s special election. Like Jones, Bama got down big early, fought to tie it up, and then with the whole country watching on the edge of their seats, pulled off a late night win in what seemed like an instant.

Jubilation abounded across the state as Coach Nick Saban tied Bear Bryant in number of national championship wins.

As I sat on my porch that night with friends smoking a victory cigar and sipping champagne, I couldn’t help but once again well up with pride in my state. We’ve won a lot of national championships down here, but this one was special. For once, we didn’t need football to save our reputation. This time, it was just the cherry on top.

And to that I have but one thing to say:

Roll Tide.



Dedicating my Vote


As I left the University of Alabama campus today to head to my polling station, I drove by the Antebellum ruins of the state capitol building from when it was here in Tuscaloosa. There are many other buildings in the area that date to the eras of slavery, Reconstruction, and segregation, a constant reminder that those days are not so bygone.

As a native Alabamian born in the chaotic and transitional year of 1968, I am proud that my state has recently done much to preserve and memorialize historic sites that tell a more inclusive story;  Pettus Bridge in Selma, Montgomery’s Civil Rights Memorial and Museum, the Civil Rights District and National Monument in Birmingham. To name but a few.

Here on the University of Alabama campus we now have a beautiful bell tower, plaza,  and monument commemorating George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door, honoring the first African American students (Vivian Malone, Autherine Lucy, and James Hood) that broke down segregation at the state’s flagship University.

Near capitol park, I also drove by one of the more recent efforts at memorization, a humble historical marker placed just last spring by the Equal Justice Initiative in front of the Old Tuscaloosa Jail, detailing the county’s dark history of lynching. As I drove by, a “Doug Jones for US Senate” sign planted in the ground near the site caught my attention.

There are many other issues in this election, but I was struck by emotion as I thought about how my vote today was for a man that prosecuted the 1963 murderers of four African American girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church, and against a man that seems to feel that America was “great” during slavery. 

The marker discusses the 360 documented lynchings in the state, and details the story of eight of those that took place in Tuscaloosa County between 1884-1933. Mobs dragged some of the victims from the jail that still stands today.  The murders were a product of the desire of many to preserve the racial system of white superiority that was weakened by the 13th amendment of the Constitution which ended slavery, and the 14th and 15th that conferred citizenship rights to the freedmen.  The efforts of white supremacists were largely successful at preventing the state from moving forward, chaining it by law and through violence to the past.

Much has changed in Alabama since then, as the markers, memorials,  and museums attest. Yet today we are going to the polls in an election that in many ways will demonstrate how much we want to keep moving forward,  away from our ugly past and image.

I honestly don’t know what tonight’s returns will decide (I am not optimistic), but after voting today I felt compelled to return to the lynching marker to take a picture of it and my “I voted” sticker.

Call it over-dramatic, but I am dedicating my vote to these victims of the state’s attempt to forever hold on to the dark days of racial slavery and white superiority:

Bud Wilson (murdered in 1889), Andy Burke (1884), Charles McKelton (1892), John Johnson (1892), Sidney Johnson (1898), John Durett (1898), Cicero Cage (1919), and Dennis Cross (1933).

You can read their stories here.

I feel pretty sure that if they could, they would vote exactly as I did today, and for much the same reasons.

On Roy Moore, American history, Christianity, abortion, and Doug Jones


So have you heard? There is a special election going on in Alabama on Tuesday, December 12 to fill Jeff Sessions’ vacated senate seat. This has become a major focus of the national media’s attention.

Unlike many of the people that have commented on this election, I have a vote in it. So please let me share my humble opinions from deep down here in the Heart of Dixie.

Outside the state of Alabama, the focus has been on the allegations that Roy Moore pursued underage girls, painting him as a predatory pedophile. Thus, the nation can not imagine how Alabamians could place a man like that in the U.S. Senate. For them, there seems to be no other logical choice but to elect Doug Jones.

Inside the state, however, the election has largely come to be seen as a choice between the lesser of two evils: an alleged pedophile vs. a liberal proponent of late-term abortion/murder. Polls show that in the age of Trump and “fake news” Alabamians simply do not trust the media enough to fully believe Moore’s accusers, especially when the alleged predatorial activities took place over four decades ago. Meanwhile, Jones is an admitted pro-choice Democrat, and a majority of Alabamians find THAT to be abhorrent.

Whatever your own views of abortion, set them aside for a moment and try to place yourself in the mind of these people. (It is called open-mindedness, you can do it if you try). If you truly and passionately feel deep in your heart that abortion is murder, what would mean more to you? Voting to try and stop the murder of infants, or allegations about a man pursuing young girls 40 years ago but who has been loyally devoted to his long-time wife ever since?

In that light, I think it is important that we stop trying to oversimplify this election, looking judgmental noses down at people who find it difficult to vote for Doug Jones and that still side with Roy Moore. These are not sick and demented people, they’re largely good folks that are sick of being mocked and ridiculed.

So instead of insulting them, let’s set aside the stereotypes that both sides in this election have created, and instead look at all the other reasons why Roy Moore is unfit for office, and why Doug Jones is perfect for Alabama.


Roy Moore, circa 1974

Roy Moore was the wrong man for this job, or any publicly-elected job, WAY before all this stuff about underage girls surfaced. His law-school professors and fellow students long ago labeled him “fruit salad” because of his twisted legal opinions and his dogmatic inability to compromise or debate fairly with people who held different opinions than his own.

His entire career as a judge has demonstrated this failing, and that he has some fundamental problems understanding the founding principles of this country. He believes in theocracy; that government should be used to enforce a moral code on its citizens. For him, the separation of church and state goes only so far as to not use the government to deprive non-believers of their rights, as long as doing so does not violate Christian beliefs or undermine a Christian-basis of our laws. For Moore, the government should promote the Christian religion over all other religions, by enforcing Christian morality through laws that make “sin,” as he defines it, illegal. So, if you’re a “sinner” by his definition, there go your rights.

His effort to use the government to promote Christianity is why he defied the federal government when they insisted that he remove the Ten Commandments monument from his courthouse.

These theocratic views are somewhat similar to that of the Puritans that established the Massachusetts Bay colony, so there is a connection to our founding. But where did these beliefs get the Puritants? Because of the Salem Witch Trials, are they not now viewed as the epitome of backwardness and religious persecution? In establishing a nation founded on the concept that government should not be used to force or promote a religion on its citizens, our founders were purposely rejecting the very type of government that Moore and the Puritans believed in and that has been responsible for centuries of persecution all over the world.


Here’s what theocracy gets you

The separation of church and state that our founders created purposely protects all religions. I have to wonder how Christians would feel upon entering a courtroom with a presiding judge that is Muslim, and in which he prominently displayed Sharia law as his guiding principles. Yikes!

That won’t happen however, because the same principle that Moore defied with his Ten Commandments monument, is the same principle that would prevent such a situation. Praise our founders for that protection.

This is why Moore was removed from his job the first of TWO times. The other time also involved him trying to enforce his religious beliefs on citizens, in direct defiance of the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage. (If Republicans truly believe that less government interference in our lives is a good thing, I have to wonder why they think the government should be in the business of telling someone who they can or can’t love?)


Grave of Chief Justice John Marshall. We may need to check to see if he’s rolled over in there.

But the whole episode also revealed that the so-called Judge Roy Moore clearly does not understand the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, as well as the landmark supreme court cases under Chief Justice John Marshall in the early years of our republic that established the concept of judicial review. I feel as though we need to send the man a copy of a basic high school level history/civics book. He was removed as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court BOTH TIMES because the man does not understand basic foundational principles of our nation.

This alone makes him unqualified to be a member of the U.S. Senate. Doesn’t it?

But back to religion, I personally wonder how truly “Christian” someone is if those beliefs were forced upon them by government laws, as Moore promotes. Instead of striving to make this is a Christian nation by forcing a certain moral code on people, wouldn’t it be more beneficial and meaningful for Moore to promote Christian values by focusing on changing people’s hearts and minds? In our nation, that’s the job of the church, NOT the government.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I find no scriptures in which Jesus asked his followers to strive for changing Roman laws, making them reflect scriptural values. In fact, he submitted to Roman law to the point of death. His mission was not political or legal.


Christ’s preferred method of changing the world? Um, no.

Which brings me to the damage that Roy Moore’s brand of Christianity does to the church. For many people, Christianity seems to be a religion of hypocrisy. They see it in how many Christians live their day-to-day lives, and they really saw it when evangelical Christians abandoned their moral principles (the same ones they used to rightfully condemn the actions of Bill Clinton) when electing “grab ’em by the *ussy” Donald Trump. Watching this happen has been the most painful thing to me about Trump’s rise. It troubles me that many fellow Christians simply refuse to see the damage that the embracing of Trump has done to the church’s mission. If you never talk to non-Christians, you probably have a hard time fully comprehending the damage it’s done, but trust me, it’s real.

As a Christian, I have to ask, would electing Roy Moore do even more damage to people’s perceptions of the Christian faith? Would it make the faith more appealing to people, or less so? Would the hypocrisy of it continue to harm the church’s mission of spreading the gospel? If we are honest with ourselves, I think the answer is clear.

But, what about abortion? Moore is pro-life. We have to fill the government up with pro-lifers if we ever hope to end abortion. Right? The problem is that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, and the election of more Republicans is not going to change that. It has been the law since 1973, and since then, Republicans have politicized this issue to tie Christians to the party, successfully becoming the majority party for most of the last few decades. Yet has this brought us any closer to banning abortions?

Electing Roy Moore to the U. S. Senate is not going to advance the cause of ending abortions.

If abortions are going to be substantially reduced in this country, pro-lifers will have to stop thinking that government is the answer (isn’t that a core belief of the Republican party? That government is the problem and that less reliance on it is the solution?) I’d love to see the church focus their anti-abortion passions and efforts exclusively on sex education and mission work to help young and distressed mothers feel less alone in those trying moments of their life.

Even if government outlawed abortion, you’re not going to end them unless you end the demand for them (you know, the same way that outlawing drugs has not ended the drug problem). I can’t help but feel that the pro-life movement is better served by not relying on government, but by relying exclusively on providing love, support, and the guidance of Christ to women facing pregnancies and choices that can be overwhelming.

Yet as damaging as I think Moore is to the Christian faith, and as troubled as I am about his ignorance of the basic foundational principles of country and the Constitution, I am even more troubled by his other views on America’s history.

It has recently come to light that Roy Moore believes that America was “great” back when we had slaves. I listened to his comments to make sure that his words were not taken out of context and to try and get some sense of the point he was making. His words came in response to a question from an African American who challenged him to name a time when America was “great” (a clear reference to Trump’s inane campaign slogan).

Moore struggled to find an answer and did not define a definite moment in time, relying instead on acknowledging that our country has rightfully had to expand its freedoms to larger numbers of people through war, constitutional amendments, and Supreme Court decisions. True.

And yet he then vaguely referred to a time when our families and country were united behind a goal and a destiny. Perhaps the only time this comes close to being true was during WWII, but Moore then said that we had slavery during these years to which he was referring.


Does he mean Antebellum America? Revolutionary America? Colonial America? In all three cases, a belief that we were all united during those times would be ridiculous in the extreme.

More problematic, however, is that he could regard slavery as anything less than horrific, and that he mentioned it in the context of us having unified families. Let’s keep in mind that during slavery, African American families were split up by masters that sold spouses away from each other (evidence suggests this happened to 1 out of every 3 slave families in the upper south), and children away from parents (1 out of every 2). But to Moore, this seems to have been a great time for America’s families.


Here’s America being great to families, according to Roy Moore

Let’s also keep in mind that any era that included slavery in our nation’s history, was an era in which women, white or black, could not vote or enjoy most citizenship rights guaranteed to white men. While Moore acknowledges that we have expanded rights through constitutional amendment, in 2011 he co-authored a book (which promotes theocratic government) arguing that the women’s suffrage movement was bad for the country and that women should not hold public office. (He apparently did not write that particular chapter, but his name as a co-author definitely denotes approval).


Suffragette Lucy Burns exactly where Roy Moore would apparently want her. “Lock her up!”

Aside from Moore’s alleged fetish for teenaged girls, he apparently has a fetish for a time when white protestant men exclusively controlled the country and white woman and African Americans were “in their place.”

Again, these things alone make Moore unfit for the U. S. Senate, or any public office.

Don’t they??

Business leaders in the state of Alabama seem to agree. They have made it clear they fear the impact that Moore’s election would have on the image of the state. Down here in the Deep South, we are still playing catch-up to the rest of the country in trying to lure industries to our states that bring jobs, and a higher tax base. Moore’s beliefs and image would damage those efforts, business leaders agree, because companies would not want to relocate to a state that is seen as intolerant, backwards, and hypocritical.

Potential jobs (both skilled and unskilled) for Alabamians would be lost, as would the higher tax revenues that would help us get better roads, government services, schools, and teacher pay.  Please think about that when you go to the polls.

And then there is Doug Jones.

Sure, he is a Democrat, and most Alabamians would rather shoot their dog than vote for a Democrat. But any objective look at the man’s beliefs reveal that he is no Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi. He’s no liberal Democrat.

Jones is clearly a moderate, and deep in my heart I still believe that most Alabamians actually line up well behind his beliefs.  Let’s look at just a few that I think are at the forefront of the thoughts of Alabamians:

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Doug Jones, enjoying his 2nd amendment right

-He is an avowed hunter with a large gun collection that he believes the 2nd amendment protects. He only wants moderate gun control laws, like more extensive background checks.

-He is an outspoken man of Christian faith, being raised his whole life in church.

-He believes in a strong military and peace through strength.

-He believes in expanding medicare and medicaid and working WITH Republicans to try and create something better than Obamacare.

-He wants our criminal justice system to focus more on rehabilitation so that we can lessen the burden on our extremely overcrowded prison system, keeping the truly dangerous behind bars.

-He is dedicated to pursuing bi-partisanship. The #1 thing plaguing our current political situation right now (in my opinion) is the complete inability or desire of our politicians to work with each other to fashion compromises that move us forward. Instead, compromise is seen as weak, and the goal is domination over our political opponents. Our political system was a product of compromise that was meant to facilitate compromise. “Fruit salad” is dogmatically incapable of such efforts (as his whole career and avowed beliefs attests), but Jones is committed to it. Isn’t that what this country needs now more than ever?

-Lastly, no matter what Roy Moore’s TV commercials try to tell you, he believes in the state’s abortion laws as they are now, supporting late-term abortion ONLY in the case of when the mother’s life is in jeopardy. screen-shot-2017-09-24-at-6-1.33.29-pm-300x260.png

And let’s not forget that while Moore was out there tarnishing our state’s reputation and sewing seeds of division and racial discord, Doug Jones was prosecuting the criminals in perhaps our state’s most infamous crime: the 1963 killing of 4 black children at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

The fact that our state FINALLY put those KKK bastards where they belong was a signal to the nation that our state was moving forward from its ugly past. A vote for Moore, and his nostalgia for an era before women’s suffrage and emancipation of African Americans would send the opposite signal.

Come on Alabama, who are we? I pray the answer is clear.

Let’s be on the right side of history:




Do we really have to keep doing this?

Image result for angry professor cartoon

A few years ago, I heard one of our most respected Civil War historians proclaim that the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War had been obliterated by academics and that this was finally true in mass popular culture, suggesting it is only among fringe groups (that would never change their minds anyway) that it still holds sway. I thought it was a strange and misguided thing to say then, and the events of the years since have certainly proven him wrong.

Yes, a slew of movies and TV shows lately have demonstrated that the Lost Cause is seemingly dead in pop culture: Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave, the Roots remake, Kingdom of Jones, Birth of a Nation (2016), PBS’s Mercy Street, and WGN’s Underground, for examples.

Still, Mercy Street and Underground have been cancelled, and Sophia Coppola’s recent remake of The Beguiled essentially ignored slavery’s connection to the Antebellum south and the Civil War, and rolled out the old-Hollywood trope of southern women vulnerable to the lusts of dastardly Yankees.

More upsetting, the recent controversy over Rebel monuments and memorials has revealed just how deeply divided the nation is in regards to Civil War causation. It also seems that every day the Civil War is back in the news again in some fashion, and usually in ways that demonstrate that the general public is still woefully misinformed about the conflict’s causes.

A perfect recent example is this long diatribe of a blog post from sports journalist Clay Travis. (Who, by the way, recently used Twitter to challenge Ta-Nehisi Coates to a debate on the Civil War. Is there some way we can make that happen?) He gets just about everything in his posting woefully wrong (he especially needs to study up on Southern Unionism), but it is an instructive read because it reveals what I think is pretty mainstream belief about the Civil War among educated people who actually take the time to read. (They’re just reading the wrong things and labeling everything that disagrees with them as a product of the liberal media).

Another recent example is General Kelly’s comments about the Civil War, insisting that the conflict had been caused by a failure to compromise. He also explained Robert E. Lee’s act of treason as honorable because it came at a time when loyalty to state was more sacred than to country (he—and Clay Travis, who makes a similar point—have clearly not read Gary Gallagher’s The Union War). The response of historians to his comments was swift, condemning, and corrective, with the strange exception of Allen Guelzo.

—-Just a quick dismissive of the Guelzo piece: he understands but doesn’t seem to appreciate the importance of the fact that the only compromise the South would have accepted was a guarantee of slavery’s expansion, the resisting of which was the core platform the Republicans had just won an election standing upon. That issue had been put to a vote of the American people, and they decided. Guelzo seems to argue that efforts at compromise after that election largely failed because the Republicans thought southern leaders were merely bluffing when they threatened secession and thus Lincoln decided to call their hand. Um, no.  Had the Republicans conceded the only thing the south would have accepted, they would have been repudiating their own election victory, betraying the very people that had voted for them. Most disturbing, Guelzo admits that Lee’s actions were treasonous, yet defends them based on a tortured logic about the “uncertain constitutional relationship between state and national citizenship.” He then asserts that Lee was an honorable man because “no one was ever able to accuse him of ordering wartime atrocities.” Maintaining that position requires Guelzo to do the same thing Lee did: look the other way and say nothing to condemn the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia when they engaged in hunting down and enslaving free blacks in Pennsylvania and shooting down surrendering African American soldiers in the lines around Richmond and Petersburg.

Just to be clear, I am not accusing Guelzo of embracing the Lost Cause. He definitely does not. But the whole Kelly episode is a recent example of the myth’s continual existence. (I just felt the need to address Guelzo’s response to it).

One last recent example: The other night PBS’s Finding Your Roots featured an episode in which Bryant Gumbel’s family history was revealed to him by preeminent Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. I won’t go into much of the details, but Gates told Gumbel that one of his ancestors had been a black Confederate soldier!

In fact, he had been a member of the famed Louisiana Native Guards, a group of mostly free blacks that were compelled by economic self interest to offer their services to the Confederacy in the war’s early days. The Rebel government rejected their offer BECAUSE THEY WERE BLACK and the group later fought for the Union.

The myth of “black Confederates” is one of the most ridiculous tenets of the modern “Lost Cause” supporters, and one that the academic community (including myself) has fought aggressively against. Now, a high profile guy like Gates has helped to give it new life by interjecting it into a show that has a large number of educated PBS viewers. It would have taken little energy for Gates to correctly inform Gumbel that because the Confederacy was fighting in the name of white supremacy and the defense of slavery, they rejected the black volunteers, refusing to enlist blacks as soldiers until the war’s very last desperate days.

Yet apparently because of his desire to complicate the motives of African Americans, Gates refused to do. (His discussion of the economic self-interested reasons why those men chose to offer their services to the Confederacy already accomplished the goal of pointing out the complexity of African American motivations during the war).  No one has worked more tirelessly to dismantle the black Confederate myth than historian Kevin Levin, and he has been waging a war on his blog Civil War Memory and on other social media platforms against Gates and the Finding Your Roots producers, calling for an apology and a corrective.  Yet he is well aware that in order to effectively counter such a high profile guy like Gates, it will take an equally high-profile and respected historian.

Where are you, Eric Foner???

So as just these few recent examples reveal, the war against the Lost Cause rages on. To answer my own question, YES, we still need to keep doing this, and as Levin has suggested, WE NEED MORE ACADEMICS TO GET INTO THIS PUBLIC FIGHT. Teaching your classes and writing your books by themselves are not going to cut it. Join us, won’t you?

My Top Ten “Spook Movies” of all time!


As many of you may know, I am a big fan of ghost stories. I enjoy them as folktale, and for what they say about the culture and time from which they emerged. But, I’ll admit I also love them simply because they are fun. Last Halloween I discovered Colin Dickey’s Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (winner of a Best Book of the Year Award from NPR).  It was so good that I read it again over the last few nights to get in the Halloween spirit. Dickey is a fine writer with a healthy cynicism about ghosts. He explores many of the more famous American ghost stories that are a product of particular moments in American history, and he effectively roots the tales within solid historical context (such as the rise of spiritualism in the 19th century). He is less interested in the alleged ghosts than he is how these stories came about and how true events help to explain their creation. I cannot recommend the book highly enough.

But for today’s blog I wanted to do something different than I normally do. Besides ghost folklore, I am also a big fan of what I call “spook movies.” These are films about ghosts, and are not horror movies filled with shock and gore. They’re more subtly scary stories about what may or may not be paranormal.  I am most impressed with films that do not utilize a ton of over-the-top special effects, as I am a big believer that nothing has the potential to scare you more than your own mind. With the right lighting, camera angles, sounds, and intelligent storylines, ghost movies can produce a lot of eery fun without cheap shocks or gross visuals.

Every Halloween I enjoy watching such films. They create the perfect mood, staying with you long after the lights go out and you crawl into bed. So in very carefully considered descending order, let me present my top 10 spook movies—all from an historian’s perspective.

10. The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Scared Stiff (1953) ghostbreakers1940.76190_080820140135.jpg

-Why not start with a little comedy before we descend into darkness? The Ghost Breakers is a Bob Hope film which was remade by the legendary comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as Scared Stiff. I have a fondness for both films because at a young age they introduced me to the joys of ghost movies. Both are played for laughs, but there are some truly creepy moments involving both “zombies” and ghosts. Of the two, Ghost Breakers is superior, with Hope playing a radio show host during the Golden Age of radio broadcasting. It was made at a time when celebrities like him did double-duty as both radio and film stars. (Whenever I teach my classes about the American home-front during WWII, I am dismayed by the increasing number of students who have never even heard of Bob Hope, much less the role he played in entertaining our troops during so many of the 20th century’s wars).  The film also provides a glimpse of how zombies were portrayed in films before George Romero changed the rules with Night of the Living Dead (1968). Prior to that groundbreaking film, zombies were creepy, but essentially harmlessly catatonic and tied to voodoo practices. The film is also set in Cuba before the Cuban revolution, when it was a fashionable tourist destination for wealthy Americans. Shamefully, it features a comedically stereotypical black character such as Hollywood was prone to depicting in the Jim Crow era, reinforcing white America’s racist assumptions. Willie Best’s performance in the major role is laudatory, however. Meanwhile, Paulette Goddard plays a spunky woman who shows much less fear than Hope or Best, and it is her bravery that fuels most of the action. For you that may not know, Goddard was married to Charlie Chaplin and was a finalist for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. (I believe she would have been perhaps equally as stunning in the role as was Vivien Leigh). This one is great to pop in before the kids go to bed.

9. The Innocents (1961). innocents-the-1961-004-miss-giddens-in-the-dark.jpg

Starring the magnificent Deborah Kerr, this film is based on Henry James’s classic novel, The Turn of the Screw. I love it because like most of the movies on this list, it is more psychological drama than horror. A governess in charge of two young children, Kerr becomes convinced that their house is haunted, and/or that the children are possessed. But are they? Or is she just slowly losing her mind? Everything about how to make a truly creepy movie without shock and special effects is on display in this intriguing character study.

8. The Sixth Sense (1999). the-sixth-sense-4.jpg

No real reason to say much about this movie because I am sure that most of you are familiar with it.  I like that it is set in Philadelphia, where colonial ghosts abound. And while I was one of those that sensed the surprise twist ending coming, it still carried quite a jolt. The best thing about it, however, is that in an age when CGI special effects could have really sent this movie over the top, director M. Night Shyamalan opted for restraint and traditional special effects. The film is all the more effectively creepy because of it.

7. The Innkeepers (2011)


Okay, here is one that many of you may not have seen even though it is a more recent film. I am not a big fan of most current horror movies because I feel that they rely too much on shock and CGI special effects. Director Ti West’s The Innkeepers is an exception—for the most part. Set in an old New England hotel (filmed in Connecticut’s real-life Yankee Pedlar Inn, founded in 1891), the film is purposely slow at delivering its story and relies mostly on character development. We come to really like the two protagonists, and are fascinated by their interest in capturing proof of the paranormal in a hotel with a ton of history.  The film builds its suspense in the old-fashioned way and, like the hotel itself, seems a product of a bygone era.  There is no use of CGI in it at all! Sadly, I feel that it goes over-the-top in its climatic finale, but like any truly great spook movie, the biggest chills come from what you do not see rather than what you do. (FYI: The cast and crew claims to have had some paranormal experiences while filming the movie at the historic inn).

6. The Shining (1980).


Again there is probably not much to say here about a movie that most have seen.  To me the power in this film is that like The Innocents, it leaves you wondering if the protagonist is simply losing his mind. Some 1920s Jazz-era spooks are truly and clearly haunting the deserted hotel, but the real terror comes from Jack Nicholson’s slow-burn dissent into madness. If you ever get a chance to see this film on the big screen, take it. It is a much different experience than on TV. Trust me. Danny’s big-wheel rides and the pursuit through the maze are stunningly more effective and terrifying on the big screen.

And now the top 5!

5. The Body Snatcher (1945). boris-karloff-body-snatcher.jpg

Here is another one that many of you may not have seen. The film was produced by legendary filmmaker Val Lewton, who was hired by RKO in the 1940s to tap into some of the success that Universal studios had with “creature feature” films like Dracula (1931) Frankenstein (1931),  The Mummy (1932), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and The Wolf Man  (1941). (All great movies–especially the Bride of Frankenstein— with an appeal all their own, but this list is about spook movies). Working with a very limited budget, Lewton and his team of directors and editors were masters at using lighting, music, camera angles, and sound to scare you with what they did not show rather than what they did. Lewton’s greatest masterpieces are Cat People (1941) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), but neither of those involve ghosts. The Body Snatcher is directed by Robert Wise, featuring Boris Karloff (who had played both Frankenstein and the Mummy for Universal) as a seedy early 19th century slum-dweller who makes a living producing freshly dead bodies and selling them to a prestigious doctor who uses them for anatomical research. Does Karloff dig them up, or murder them? Either way, the doctor is unconcerned. The plot is rooted in historical fact (and based loosely on a series of Scottish murders in 1828).  In the 1700 and 1800s, this sort of thing did indeed occur in the name of medical progress, and even Benjamin Franklin was probably somewhat involved in this nefarious trade when he lived in London. A ghost does not make an appearance in the film until the very last moments and it is a situation where we have to question whether or not it is supernatural, or if there is a more psychological explanation. This ambiguousness is its brilliance, and either way, the ending provides a powerful punch.

4. The Others (2001).


This is another one that many of you have probably have seen. It is heavily inspired by The Innocents (with the always brilliant Nicole Kidman), building its drama by forcing us to consider whether the events are paranormal or if there is a psychological explanation. It is set just after WWII, but one scene builds the plot and creates a very eerie mood by portraying the mourning photographs that were popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s (In which grieving families took photographs of their beloved dead, often propping them up and posing with them). It has a surprise twist ending, and to me the brilliance of it is that once you know the ending, watching the film again creates an almost completely different movie because you see events from a totally different perspective.

3. The Uninvited (1944).

the-uninvited.jpgNot to be confused with the 2009 film with the same title, this film broke the mold for how Hollywood dealt with ghosts. While Universal studio’s “creature feature” movies gave us real monsters in the 1930s, ghosts were almost always explained in the end with a natural explanation–usually involving some bad guy trying to fool people. (à la Scooby Doo).  But during the dark days of World War II when many films started exploring darker themes in almost every genre, The Uninvited played the ghosts straight. This makes it perhaps our first true spook movie. It features a haunted house with two spirits, and a mystery that our protagonists (including the ever-dapper Ray Milland) must solve in order to give rest to the restless dead. This storyline and many of its scenes seem clichéd now, but this is because this film created the clichés. For instance, a séance scene (that is very rooted in the practices of 19th century spiritualists like the Fox Sisters) harkens to almost every ghost movie you have seen that was made after 1944. And like all the other movies on this list, the film’s power derives from character development and eeriness generated from what you do not see rather than what you do. This one was a game-changer.

2. The Changeling (1980)


Again do not confuse this film with a more current one with the same title. This George C Scott film will truly freak you out. If you think The Shining is scary, I dare you to watch this one alone. The film is set in a Gilded Age mansion that carries a dark secret involving a quintessential robber baron magnet who was determined to pass his empire on to a son that could maintain the fortune and make it grow. Mourning the recent loss of his family in a car accident, George C. Scott’s character moves into the mansion during the present day, and while dealing with his own problems, discovers a spirit with much bigger emotional issues than his own. Like The Uninvited, the film also has a séance scene straight from the practices of 19th century spiritualists, and provides subtle moments of terror that will freak you out the more you think about them afterwards. The power of this film is that it will terrify you with simple images, such as a child’s ball rolling down the stairs.

And my #1 spook movie!

1. The Haunting (1963)


Please forget about the 1999 remake. It is crap.

The less I tell you about this film is probably for the better, because everyone deserves to watch this brilliant movie the first time without any preconceived notions. All I will say is this: if you’ve read all of my list so far, you’ve now got a good sense of what I feel creates the best spook movies. Simply put, The Haunting is the finest blend of all these elements, and regardless of genre is a true cinematic masterpiece. Produced and directed by a Val Lewton protégé, the legendary Robert Wise (who also directed The Body Snatcher, but also such classics as West Side Story, and The Sound of Music), the movie is an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Legend of Hill House. Honestly, I am still waiting for this film to be topped by a better spook movie, though I suspect it never will. Watch this one and then try not to dream about Hugh Crane as you drift off to sleep.

And remember, no one will hear you cry out for help.

“In the night.

In the dark.”



How long?

Maybe I’ll eventually have something cogent and worthwhile to say about the news from Las Vegas today. But as I watch the news I feel emotionally exhausted, and all I got is this:

Back in June, I was fortunate enough to have caught U2’s 30th anniversary tour of their Joshua Tree album. It was perhaps the greatest concert I have ever seen, and one that was very emotional for me, having grown up a huge fan. Many of the band’s songs have spoken to me at various moments in my life: first love, first lost love, good times shared in high school and college with close friends, distance from loved ones, 9/11, career uncertainty, my book’s publication, and the death of my father. Through it all, their music has been a constant in my life, in good and bad times, and often a source of emotional support.

During the show, lead singer Bono said that many of their songs seem to have taken on a new and more important meaning than when he first wrote them. Anyone that knows their work, knows this to be very true. In many ways, the whole concert was brilliantly structured to make that very point. It was U2 being U2 again.

Unfortunately, one of their first and greatest hits seems to have pretty the same message today as it did way back in 1983. The events are different, but the point remains the same.

So yet again, U2 perfectly speaks to what I am feeling.

And as Ken Burn’s Vietnam series just reminded us though its brilliant soundtrack, sometimes our music just says it better.

On R.E. Lee, slavery, hate mail, and “bias.”


WOW, has it really been so long since I last posted? It has been a busy start to the new semester, but I hope to get back to posting more regularly.

In the meantime, I have a piece that was recently posted by Daily Beast, in which I step lightly into the current discussion about Robert E. Lee and slavery. Big-time historians like Eric Foner have pitched into this conversation, as has Atlantic senior editor Adam Serwer. In both cases, they leaned on a letter by Lee to his wife in which he maintains that slavery is beneficial for African Americans and, ironically, bad for whites. They also make much of a primary source that reveals Lee once hired slavecatchers to retrieve some runaways, and then had the captured men brutally whipped. Both are good sources that tell us much about Lee the slaveholder.

Yet back when doing research for my book, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation, I discovered some primary sources that provide us a view of Lee and slavery from the perspective of peoples enslaved by him. The sources all found their way into my book, but I felt that in our current discussion about Lee’s legacy (because of the monument controversy), I needed to get the sources out there in the context of this debate. The Daily Beast was happy to oblige. I hope you’ll take a look and pass the link along.

In response to that piece, I have received some heated emails by those that feel the need to keep Lee’s reputation untarnished. None of them bear repeating here, but I can’t say that any of them shocked me. I have engaged with these folks enough in my life to know them very well, especially during my years as an NPS ranger at Richmond National Battlefield park. When you stand on the Cold Harbor battlefield and remind folks that Lee’s tactics killed a greater percentage of his men than did those of Grant “the butcher,” or when you discuss slavery as the cause of secession with folks more interested in giving a rebel yell during a tour of Malvern Hill, you get to know these modern defenders of the Confederacy really well.

In one discussion thread on Facebook (Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory page), I was accused of being “biased.” Public historian Nick Sacco responded to the postings (I responded to one of them that I felt most merited a response), and apparently it inspired him to blog about the problem of people dismissing an argument simply by declaring it “biased.” He nails it.

I’m guessing that many of the people who have angrily emailed me and responded to the article would be surprised to find that for the most part I am still not in favor of total removal of the monuments, especially in Richmond. My only point in writing the article was that when considering Lee and the fate of his memorials, the perspective of those that were enslaved by him needs to be part of the conversation.  I’m not sure how that can be considered a bias, unless favoring open mindedness and having fair and productive discussion qualifies as having a bias.


On another note, I hope you guys are watching the PBS Vietnam War series. It is mesmerizing. I’m sure I will have much to say about it once it wraps up. Stay tuned.

The rebel monument debate comes to my hometown (and another dear to my heart).


City workers covering up a Confederate memorial in Birmingham

We all know the debate over Confederate monuments has gone white-hot, especially after the events in Charlottesville.

I have weighed in on this debate several times in the last year (and have no stomach for the argument that removal is “erasing history,” as I argued here) and I am firmly on record as favoring contextualization rather than removal, either by placing them in a museum (as the University of Texas did), or leaving them where they are and putting up new signs that explain the reasons the monuments were put up in the first place (like the University of Mississippi did). I also favor counter-monuments that help diversify the history we choose to remember and memorialize.

But above all, I favor letting local communities decide for themselves what they choose or don’t choose to memorialize.

However the events of the last couple of days, and Trump’s stunning reaction to them, started pushing me closer to supporting full removal.

Last night, I emotionally felt pretty much exactly as did CNN’s Van Jones:

But because I have been asked,  I want to weigh-in again on this issue by focusing on part of what Trump said, and specifically on two cities that are very close to my heart: Richmond, Virginia, (where I got my masters degree, worked at its National Battlefield Park, and lived for eight years) and Birmingham, Alabama (my hometown).

Richmond of course, is famous for its beautiful Monument Avenue, featuring enormous and imposing statues of rebel leaders such as Jefferson Davis, JEB Stuart, and Stonewall Jackson.  This summer, city leaders formed a commission to discuss how to best contextualize, but not to remove, the statues.  They held a public hearing to discuss options, and what followed was predictable mass chaos.  The audience seemed to disregard the fact that removal was not on the table, as it turned into a fight over whether to remove the statues or not. Not surprisingly, it quickly turned into a fight over what caused the South to secede. It got ugly. 

I was not there, but I have a friend and fellow historian that was, and based on his emotional and mostly sensible Facebook posting that night, it was an unmitigated disaster that probably only hardened people’s hearts and opinions, frustrating everyone.

After the stunning events of the last few days, Richmond’s mayor has decided that removal IS now on the table, and has instructed the commission to add that option to its deliberations. He made it clear he personally now favors removal. Even more powerful, two great, great grandsons of Stonewall Jackson have called for removal in a powerful plea. 

I can’t say I blame any of them, as my emotional reaction to Charlottesville, as I said above, was also to take all these rebel monuments down.

Yet stepping back from those emotions causes me to feel that of all southern cities, Richmond is probably the one in which it is most important that they stay up.

As the Capital of the Confederacy, (sitting within easy driving distance of some of the war’s most important and preserved battlefields), the city is perhaps the only one that people actually travel to just to see the monuments. (No one is going to New Orleans, or Baltimore, or Nashville, JUST to see rebel memorials).

And from an educational and public history perspective that is a GOOD THING. The city has done an exceptional job over the last decade to create institutions, memorials, and other public education endeavors, telling the WHOLE and diverse story of the Civil War and the Confederacy, and the connection of both to the institution of slavery.

The monuments not only draw people to these educational opportunities, but they themselves are important educational tools for demonstrating how previous generations chose to interpret the Civil War in an effort to promote the “Lost Cause.”

Most rebel monuments were originally placed as means of denying that the South had seceded in order to preserve slavery.  Their purpose was to glorify and distort the causes of the Confederacy’s attempt to break from the United States, painting it as an effort to defend “States Rights.” (Just how successful that effort was has been made all the more clear lately—-that Richmond public hearing, for example).

At the same time, they are monuments to white supremacy and resistance to efforts at racial justice. This chart detailing when most of these monumnts and memorials went up, demonstrates this very effectively. Thus, the erection of the monuments has a history and purpose all their own.

If you want the perfect classroom for exploring the Lost Cause, its meanings, and its successes, there is no better one than standing at the base of the Lee monument, or especially the one of Jefferson Davis. Contextualization in those spots could be a powerful way to educate the public about the white supremacist movements that for so long successfully distorted America’s understanding of the Civil War for their own political agenda. (And which has once again reared its ugly and violent head).

So I favor contextualization in Richmond, and the addition of more monuments that tell a more inclusive story (how about one to the African American troops that played a large role in reclaiming the city for the United States, for example?). Of course the problem is that most people view the monuments as they ride quickly by in cars or tourist buses, and thus I’m not sure how much contextualization signs would be visible and/or effective. This is definitely a problem.

Still, I think this is the right solution for Richmond, and they, above probably all other cities, have the ability to set the model for how these rebel monuments can be used to educate the public about how and why so many people are misinformed about the causes of the Civil War, and how those efforts were tied to resistance to black progress and racial justice.

I hope they get it right.

And then there is my hometown.  I took a lot of pride when it was announced in January that Birmingham’s Civil Rights district was being turned into a national park. The Confederate memorial near this area creates a strong contrast to the newer (and increasing) memorials and interpretive signage marking the pivotal events that occurred in Birmingham, especially those in 1963 that played a prominent role in pushing President Kennedy into proposing the Civil Rights Act. Make no mistake, the new park is preserving an American battlefield for racial justice:

The events in Charlottesville had me feeling that rebel monuments in Birmingham should come down, as they are an insult and black-eye on this historic district. Yet, a local news story may have pushed me back the other way again.

In the wake of what happened in New Orleans, the state of Alabama passed a ridiculous law making it illegal for local communities to remove rebel monuments. The hypocrisy here is amazing, considering that Republicans stand on the principle of power resting in the hands of localized government (a concept I have been mostly sympathetic to most of my life). Of course this is akin to the hypocrisy of Republicans calling for a small federal government that does not involve itself in our lives, and yet wanting one that legislates morality. If there is one thing the Republican party needs right now, it is consistency of principle.

Anyway, the city of Birmingham’s mayor and city council has decided to figure out some way to challenge this law, maybe by removing the statues and fighting it in the courts (I think they would win in the higher courts), or just paying the fine. In the meantime, they have opted for covering up the monuments, first with a tarp, and now with some plywood.

As a result, the state’s attorney general is suing Birmingham for violating “the spirit” of the law. So the battle has been joined. 

What struck me in a local news story, however, was a reporter mentioning that the monument is in the shadow of the places dear to the Civil Rights movement. For instance, the A.G. Gaston motel where Martin Luther King stayed during “Project C” is within a rock’s throw of the rebel monument. Here he and other heroes coordinated their assault on Birmingham’s white supremacist laws and racial injustices, right near a monument to the very forces they sought to destroy. And it was here that dynamite was thrown into the building in an effort to kill these Civil Rights leaders.

Does not the presence of this Lost Cause monument make what King and the hundreds of Civil Rights footsoldiers did in Birmingham even more profound?  Would we not lose part of the story if we move the Confederate monument? Is it not a perfect symbol of everything that the Civil Rights movement fought against and brought to its knees in Birmingham?

Properly interpret that monument, in the context of its purposes and also within the Civil Rights movement, and you’ve got a powerful public education tool. Removal takes that away.

So I stand for leaving it up.

ON THE OTHER HAND, you should read this op-ed by Mississippi State University Professor Anne E. Marshall, who argues that she once stood for contextualization, but has changed her mind after seeing its failure in Louisville, Ky. I can’t say she doesn’t make a lot of sense. Yet I still  think Richmond, as well as Birmingham, are different cases than Louisville—Which only reinforces my conviction that this is best left to case-by-case decisions from within the effected communities.

And then there’s Trump. I am not going to comment on how sad I was to hear our president say that there were good people in a crowd organized by white nationalists. Honestly, I can’t add anything to the outrage that has already been expressed.

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Yet I have been asked by past and present students, as well as friends, about my thoughts on one aspect of what he said. So I’ll comment briefly on that.

Trump, echoing many others, insisted that if we take down a monument to Lee and Jackson because they were slaveholders, this logically would lead us to take down monuments to other slaveholders, many of which were our founding fathers. Where would it end? There goes the Washington Memorial in DC!

Make no mistake: This is a proverbial red-herring that gets repeated over and over again by those who oppose the removal, or even the contextualization, of these monuments.

So let us be clear, despite Trump’s (and Fox News’) claim, the rationale for taking down the monuments is NOT based on the fact that the Confederate leaders were slaveholders. The logic behind taking them down (or contextualizing them) is that these were people who committed an act of treason against the United States to defend the institution of slavery and white supremacy. (In the case of Lee and Jackson, they broke sacred oaths they took when they joined the US military).

Washington and Jefferson and other founding fathers were certainly flawed men, guilty of America’s original sin of slavery (among other things), but they did not commit acts of treason in the name of white supremacy.

Oh, but they were treasonous, you say, because they rebelled against their government by breaking from the British empire.

I have LONG been sick of this argument. Washington and Jefferson rebelled against a government in which they had no representation, which, you know, was kind of the whole point. Don’t we learn in grade school, “no taxation without representation!?” They believed that taxes could only come from institutions in which they were represented (specifically, their own colonial legislatures).

Robert E Lee, on the other hand,  rebelled against a government in which he had representation.  In fact, because of the 3/5ths clause of  the Constitution, southern white men like him were OVERLY represented in that government, which was pretty much the reason the Republican Party was formed in the first place—to bring down this overly-represented and overly-politically powerful “slave power.”

So there is a big difference between Washington and Lee. HUGE difference.

Please do not listen to Trump or anyone else when they insist that taking down rebel monuments would lead to pulling down all monuments to slaveholders or otherwise morally flawed leaders. It just isn’t so.

This is about the Confederacy and its causes. Insisting otherwise, or that the Civil War was not caused by a defense of slavery and white supremacy,  is FAKE NEWS.

Bottom line: I am still for contextualization in Birmingham and Richmond. But if locals in those places and in other cities decide to take them down, I’ll shed no tears for the Confederacy, (unlike the real ones I shed after our so-called president’s response to Charlottesville).



Missiles and race riots: It sure is looking a lot like 1962 around here


Oxford Mississippi, 1962

Ok, put this down as a “hot take,” but as I watch the news reports today from Charlottesville I can’t help recall that the riots in Oxford, Mississippi when James Meredith tried to register to attend the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962, took place just as Soviet missiles were arriving in Cuba.

History does not repeat itself, but it sure as heck does rhyme sometimes.

Of course one major difference between then and now is that in 1962 we had a president that took decisive action against the racist aggressors in Oxford without blaming “many sides,” or without using a moment when firm language against domestic terrorism was needed, to randomly tout the employment rate.  And we had a leader who stood firm against the Soviets, yet without issuing off-the-cuff school-house bully rhetoric that only inflamed the situation. (And he certainly did not need the Chinese President to tell him to tone it down).

I also can’t think of any klansmen in 1962 claiming they only wanted to fulfill the president’s agenda, as we do today.

And this is coming from someone that is not particularly a fan of the JFK presidency.

Partisanship is probably the wrong stance for any of us to take right now. Objectively, I believe that no matter who won the presidency these debates over the monuments was probably going to lead to this.

Yet, we must face facts. Less than a year into this presidency, we are on the brink of a nuclear war again, and we have Nazis and other white supremacists openly marching in the streets, touting the president’s agenda, and committing acts of domestic terrorism in the name of preserving the legacy of the Confederacy.

It seems like we are going backwards, and you can’t say that historians did not do everything we could to warn that this would happen.

Meanwhile, one of my colleagues at the University of Alabama, Charles P. Clark, made perhaps the best statement about today, simply by posting this picture on Facebook:


’nuff said.