A mag­a­zine’s Lost Cause con­fes­sion

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - METRO - Jim Gal­loway

The Ge­or­gia His­tor­i­cal Quar­terly is one of those heav­ily foot­noted publi­ca­tions de­voted to the somber study of what we once were. To be truth­ful, some might con­sider it stodgy. Even dusty.

Which is to say that the GHQ — for this is how in­sid­er­ish his­to­ri­ans re­fer to it — is not the place you would ex­pect to find sala­cious con­fes­sions. But to mark the mag­a­zine’s 100th birth­day, the mag­a­zine edi­to­rial staff has of­fered one up.

To top it off, the mag­a­zine’s editor even blows the whis­tle on an open se­cret. The lat­est is­sue is sure to fly off the shelves.

First, the con­fes­sion: Over the course of this year, and in its lat­est is­sue, the mag­a­zine has point­edly ac­knowl­edged that, through­out much of its life­time, the GHQ was a traf­ficker in Lost Cause mythol­ogy.

This was the fic­tion that the states of the Con­fed­er­acy cre­ated for them­selves in de­feat — that the Civil War had noth­ing to do with slav­ery or white supremacy. It be­came the un­der­ly­ing phi­los­o­phy for Jim Crow and seg­re­ga­tion, and for the re­birth of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th cen­tury.

The Lost Cause is why we’re still torn apart by a carv­ing of three Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers on the side of Stone Moun­tain.

“The GHQ, when it be­gan, was in­formed by this Lost Cause ide­ol­ogy. The lead­ing pro­po­nents of it were the United Daugh­ters of the Con­fed­er­acy, who were mostly re­spon­si­ble for these Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments,” said Glenn McNair, the editor of GHQ and a pro­fes­sor of history at Kenyon Col­lege in Ohio.

In the GHQ’s most re­cent edi­tion, the lead es­say fo­cuses on E. Mer­ton Coulter, who served as the quar­terly’s first pro­fes­sional editor for 50 years, un­til 1973. “He was a ro­man­ti­cizer of the Old South, the Con­fed­er­acy, and Re­con­struc­tion who con­trib­uted to the South’s closed in­tel­lec­tual so­ci­ety and who con- sciously em­ployed his skills as a his­to­rian to bol­ster the white South’s re­jec­tion of so­cial jus­tice for blacks,” writes Fred Arthur Bai­ley, a history pro­fes­sor re­tired from Abi­lene Chris­tian Univer­sity in Texas.

Coulter’s view of Con­fed­er­ate history was in­cor­po­rated into South­ern pub­lic school textbooks over decades.

All ow me to ex­plain why this ad­mis­sion mat­ters. In the largest sense, the above para­graphs break no par­tic­u­larly new ground — and would seem ob­vi­ous to many. But history isn’t just a recita­tion of facts. Who tells the story mat­ters. As does when the telling oc­curs.

The Ge­or­gia His­tor­i­cal Quar­terly be­gan pub­li­ca­tion in 1917, and its cir­cu­la­tion is small. But its par­ent or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Sa­van­nah-based Ge­or­gia His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, was founded in 1839. It may be the old­est pri­vate or­ga­ni­za­tion in the state — cer­tainly old enough to look down on Coca-Cola as new money.

Age has its ad­van­tages. Po­lit­i­cally, the so­ci­ety is plugged in. Deeply. Its cur­rent board chair­man is Vince Doo­ley. Yeah, that

one. He earned a mas­ter’s de­gree in history dur­ing the off-sea­son.

In other words, in the midst of yet an­other de­bate over the saint­li­ness of Robert E. Lee, Jeff Davis and Stonewall Jack­son, sure to oc­cur in the Leg­is­la­ture come Jan­uary, a foun­da­tional state or­ga­ni­za­tion with deep po­lit­i­cal roots is pub­licly, os­ten­ta­tiously sid­ing with a South­ern ori­gin story that isn’t sep­a­rate but equal — that doesn’t tell black Ge­or­gia one thing while throw­ing a wink to white Ge­or­gia.

The ef­fort may have sur­faced this year, but has been un­der­way for decades. “The Ge­or­gia His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety and the GHQ have been at the fore­front of chang­ing the way we think about our history,” McNair said. “When Coulter left in the ’70s, that was pretty much the end of that era. Among his­to­ri­ans, he was a hold­out.” And yet those at­tempt­ing to re­vise our view of an im­por­tant re­vi­sion­ist don’t trash the long-time GHQ editor. That would be un South­ern and un­help­ful. But they do try to ex­plain him.

McNair refers to him as “a first-rate his­to­rian and pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia.”

Even so, the ar­ti­cle that fol­lows de­scribes the weaponiza­tion of South­ern history by Coulter and oth­ers: “He was a lat­ter-day Jeremiah urg­ing south­ern whites to re­main faith­ful to their her­itage.”

When de­scrib­ing the life­style of slaves, “he sim­ply noted that ‘they were treated no bet­ter or no worse than their eco­nomic well-be­ing de­manded.’ ”

Coulter wrote of a threat­ened white pop­u­lace: “The white peo­ple ... called to their as­sis­tance the In­vis­i­ble Em­pire of the Ku Klux Klan, and the best el­e­ments in the state en­tered into its se­cret con­fines.”

In 1959, af­ter Coulter gave a fiery his­tor­i­cal de­fense of seg­re­ga­tion in the South, U.S. Sen. Richard B. Rus­sell of Ge­or­gia had it read into the con­gres­sional record.

The ac­knowl­edg­ment of Coulter and his in­flu­ence is just one of those ad­just­ments that McNair and oth­ers at GHQ have pushed to cor­rect the record. An­other is the cen­tral­ity of slav­ery to the Civil War, and the na­tion’s pre-1860 econ­omy.

“It wasn’t a side project, it was cen­tral to the whole thing,” McNair said.

Then there’s this ques­tion: When does an act of re­bel­lion be­come trea­son. “Just say­ing that makes some peo­ple cringe,” the GHQ editor said.

The pub­li­ca­tion has made a sub­tle change in the lan­guage it uses. It no longer refers to fed­eral troops as “the Union army.”

“It puts the Union and Con­fed­er­acy on equal planes. We try, when­ever we can, to say ‘the Con­fed­er­acy ver­sus the United States army,’ ” the editor said.

Now, I promised you an open se­cret a few para­graphs ago.

You would like McNair. He started out as a Sa­van­nah cop in the 1980s, ul­ti­mately grad­u­at­ing with a doc­tor­ate from Emory Univer­sity in 2001.

But it is this line in McNair’s fore­word that drew my at­ten­tion, a ref­er­ence to the Lost Cause aca­demic who pre­ceded him: “Hav­ing me, an African-Amer­i­can, oc­cupy the editor’s chair is some­thing he cer­tainly would never have en­vi­sioned.”

McNair is the first African-Amer­i­can editor of the Ge­or­gia His­tor­i­cal Quar­terly, and has been for seven years. It is not a fact that’s been hid­den away, but he doesn’t men­tion it of­ten.

When a history is told mat­ters, as does the who of its telling. But the facts of history ought not de­pend on the race of per­son who writes it.

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