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VOL. 10 | NO. 37 | Saturday, September 9, 2017

Editorial: Historical Commissions Must Be Run by Pros

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At some point, the question of what becomes of our city’s Confederate monuments will be resolved. Whenever that is, there are still some critical and arguably larger issues that should be addressed.

The monuments controversy, recurring and festering for decades, is the prime argument that history is certainly the story of the past. But it is not a story that ends in the past.

Too often our historical commissions, appointed bodies many of us don’t even know exist, have made the truth of our history a casualty to racist fairy tales and fake history.

These bodies are important – too important for the historians to be outnumbered and outvoted by amateurs who are defending a past that never happened and still fighting a war that their side lost a long time ago.

That false narrative of a war that wasn’t about slavery, a Klan that was a fraternal organization and Forrest being a benevolent slave trader – whatever that is – is more than misguided.

The creation of that narrative was about restoring power to those who were on the wrong side of the war and history and remained on the wrong side of history with new institutions like the Klan and its subsequent multiple resurgences all the way up to the present in Charlottesville. Add sharecropping, black codes, Jim Crow, chain gangs as unpaid workforce labor and standing-in-the-school house-door George Wallace-style populism along that timeline.

The truth of the Civil War is like the truth of any war – complicated enough that there will always be debates when viewed from the perspective of the here and now.

But there should be no place on our historical commissions for those who completely ignore what doesn’t advance their cause or viewpoint and make up a narrative that does, then seek to enforce it with public monuments in public places.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell began his first term in 2010 with a deliberate effort to make the local historical commission reflect a more accurate view and context and broaden the scope of official recognition of our history to move away from its concentration on the Civil War.

The commission’s most recent efforts to recognize landmarks like American Studios and Poplar Tunes as well as lunch counter sit-ins speak to that broader, more inclusive and more accurate view of Memphis history.

The commission’s evolution should continue to include being a voice on the monuments controversy.

Meanwhile, efforts by the Memphis Branch NAACP to recognize the Memphis Massacre of 1866 were needlessly complicated 150 years later by a state historical commission that insisted on it being described as a riot. The NAACP with the city of Memphis bypassed the commission to put up an appropriate historical marker backed by the real historians.

We need majorities of academic and professional historians on our historical commissions and related bodies.

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