American history, especially the public memory of the Civil War, has played a central role in the debates following the episodes of racism, antisemitism, and violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11 and 12. These debates are not new.
Beliefs about the history of race, slavery, and the Civil War and Reconstruction are deeply held in the United States, whether or not they are consistent with the evidence presented by historians specializing in these topics. These histories have had a powerful influence on American politics since the Civil War, and beliefs about the past have inspired acts of terror and violence, as well as individual participation and social movements dedicated to justice, equality, and democracy.
The conflict over the public memory of the Civil War in the United States raises profound questions about the relationship between history and the possibility of democracy, and about how our memory of the past influences our choices and beliefs in the present. This lesson invites students to think deeply about these questions by examining responses to a 2015 incident of violence and terror—when a white supremacist murdered nine African American worshipers in a South Carolina church. While recent debates have focused on the appropriateness of monuments to Confederate generals and politicians in our public spaces, the debate in 2015 centered on the meaning of another powerful symbol from the Civil War era: the Confederate battle flag.
Because the violence and bigotry we witnessed in Charlottesville can leave many students feeling raw and confused, teachers should be thoughtful about when they use this lesson. Some may decide that their students are ready to have a discussion based on reactions to previous discussions. Other may use this lesson later in the year, after student have processed the details of Charlottesville.