Tag Archives: James Young

Mississippi license plate honoring Klan leader a good idea?

A proposal to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest is stirring up controversy in Mississippi.

William Faulkner famously wrote that the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past, and that certainly seems to be the case in his native Mississippi.

The Mississippi division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is proposing a specialty license plates building up to 2015, the 150th anniversary of the “War Between the States.”

In 2014, the group would honor Nathan Bedford Forrest, according to an article I read this morning.

Some may remember Forrest as the inspiration for Forrest Gump, the mentally challenged and spiritually uplifting protagonist that Tom Hanks won an Academy Award for playing in the movie bearing the character’s name.

But Forrest was also a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Supporters of the proposal say that Forrest distanced himself from the group at the end of his life and by the time it had started using violence on a regular basis. According to this perspective, Forrest is not only a military genius, but an example of Christian redemption.

Others hold a very different view, saying they are stunned to even have to answer the question and that they fervently oppose honoring one of the founding figures in a group responsible for so much pain, hate and destruction.

For these people, honoring Forrest is akin to saluting Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden.

The debate underscores the intersection of historical memory with current political discourse.

Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote in one of my favorite novels, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, that the “struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

I see it slightly differently.

The struggle is not only memory against forgetting, but for what we choose to remember.

As a society, we give value to items in several ways.

We count them, as we do in the decennial census.  A number of projects I have worked on at the Reporter have pointed this out through their absence.  By not counting the number of children with incarcerated parents, for example, we are unable to tell how many there, and, from there, to determine the scope of the problem so that we can work for solutions.

Another way we show value to people, places and events is to remember them.

This memory can take the form of vacation days-here in the United States, we recently marked the 25th years of Dr. King’s birthday being a national holiday- or of naming anything from stadiums to library wings to streets.

University of Massachusetts professor of English and Judaic Studies James Young has written extensively about memorials.  In one of his books, he describes the hotly contested battle to determine Germany’s official Holocaust memorial. The arguments were so fierce precisely because the official version of history has power and states in public ways what happened.

While the Sons of Confederate Veterans do not represent state power, they are seeking to assert the importance of Forrest as someone who should be honored.

While they certainly are within their rights to do so, I disagree with the substance of the proposal.  I do not support holding up someone who helped found and lead a group that rained down terror on black people for close to a century.  While a case can be made for his redemption later in life, I find it far less convincing than that of Hugo Black or Robert Byrd, for instance.

Both were Klan members in their youth.  Both publicly expressed remorse for that membership.  And both worked in their legislative or judicial arenas to address the wrongs that people in those groups committed.

Forrest played a far more influential role in the group and took none of these actions.

In addition to showing the accuracy of Faulkner’s word, the current controversy underscores the importance we attach to who we remember and what parts of their lives we choose to emphasize.

What do you think?  What should we remember?  Why does it matter?


James Von Brunn, Resources about Holocaust Denial and White Supremacy.

Here is a picture of alleged shooter James Von Brunn and a list of resources about the Holocaust and white supremacy.

Here is a picture of alleged shooter James Von Brunn and a list of resources about the Holocaust and white supremacy.

By now, I’m sure you have heard about the shocking murder of a security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, allegedly by 88-year-old white supremacist and Holocaust denier James Von Brunn.

It’s a hard time for white supremacists these days.  

Events like Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, his appointment of a diverse Cabinet, and his recent nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to be the nation’s third woman and first Latina U.S. Supreme Court justice embody all of what the haters oppose.

A sense of losing a battle often triggers desperate acts.

Von Brunn’s attack apparently was triggered by Obama’s recent visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp, which he called the “ultimate rebuke” to deniers. 

Here are some resources that can help give context to some of the issues raised by Von Brunn’s alleged shooting: 

To begin, Von Brunn was a failed artist, according to news reports.  Peter Cohen’s Architecture of Doom is an astonishing film that shows that many of the top Nazis, including Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, were, too. 

I wrote last weekabout Deborah Lipstadt’s book and blog, as well as  a web site, all of which are intended to counter Holocaust denial.

The Intelligence Report, a publication of the Southern Povery Law Center and where my friend Casey Sanchez works, covers hate groups in America.  The Center more generally is one of the nation’s leading authorities on the issue.

Dear friend and full professor Stephen Kantrowitz’s Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy is a nimbly written and thoughtfully argued description of the re-emergence of white supremacy after the Civil War and into the 20th century as told through the life of South Carolina politician “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman.  

Kantrowitz and other historians who cover this ground are walking in the very wide road carved by groundbreaking historian and Arkansas native C. Vann Woodward, whose classic work The Strange Career of Jim Crow paved the way for other works like Kantrowitz’s to follow. 

For those people interested in the context that gave rise to the Holocaust Museum where the shooting occurred, I recommend Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life.  Novick argues that the events of the Holocaust have gained importance in America more because of the organization of the Jewish community than because of any change in the genocide’s tragic nature.

James Young is one of the leading authorities of Holocaust memorials; his book, At Memory’s Edge: After Images of the Holocast in Contemporary Art and Architecture should be required reading for those intrigued by that topic.  

People seeking an overview of the Holocaust could do a lot worse than reading journalist William Shirer’s tome, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, or historian Sir Martin Gilbert’s  The Holocaust:  A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War.  

Of course, Facing History and Ourselves, where Dunreith works and where I am a consultant, does terrific work around prejudice reduction with students all over the world.  While the organization has expanded from its original look at the Holocaust as its primary ‘case study,’ it still has a tremendous collection of print and video resources on the topic.  

Elements of Time, a collection of survivor testimony, is one of my favorites, while readers of Elie Wiesel’s Night should check out The Challenge of Memory, a video that accompanies the book and has complementary testimony for numerous points in the book.

Facing History’s resource book, Holocaust and Human Behavior, also has plenty of useful information, even as it’s more of a menu than a straight historical narrative.

Unfortunately, education and memory has not yet been a completely successful antidote to haters like Von Brunn and others of his ilk.  Still, actions like his only underscore the importance of continuing to inform people about past atrocities and continue to strive for a world in which events that seemingly were impossible, like the election of a black president, eventually become ordinary.