In summer 2016, Barry Mauer, associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Central Florida, conducted research with Rose Library’s Kelly Miller family papers and Stone Mountain collection.
The “repulsive monument” is a textual genre invented by Gregory Ulmer. Repulsive monuments honor abject losses, which result from a collective’s behaviors but are disowned by the collective. Though memorializing the leaders of the Confederacy—Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis—as Stone Mountain does, is certainly repulsive in the conventional sense of the term, it is not a repulsive monument in the sense that Ulmer means because the collective (at least the group of its most politically dominant members) does not disown the leaders memorialized on Stone Mountain; rather, these Confederate leaders represent the collective’s highest values, which are white supremacist, militarist, and anti-Enlightenment values.
Repulsive monuments reveal the relationships between our values, behaviors, and losses. They recognize as sacred those abject losses that result from our behaviors. An example would be a monument to “by-catch” in the shrimp industry; the shrimpers may not be intending to catch other species, yet they do so at a rate of up to 15:1 in the U.S. By accepting and honoring such losses, we make possible the re-configuration of our identity, which includes our values and behaviors. Stone Mountain does not honor the abject (for instance, by recognizing the oppression of black people). Instead, it denies it.
A repulsive monument results from efforts to represent the ignorance and the blind spots at the heart of identity, whether of a group or of an individual person. I have begun a repulsive monument project to explore the abjection at the heart of white supremacy in America. See Textshop Experiments for a piece that serves as an introduction. My time at the Rose Library allowed me to investigate further this ignorance and these blind spots, both within our culture and within myself. I found many.
The research questions that brought me to the Rose Library concerned the mechanisms by which the United States can deny that it is a white supremacist nation when there is overwhelming evidence that it is. How can members of neo-Confederate groups deny they are white supremacists when they practice white supremacy on a daily basis? How do national leaders deny that their policies are racist when the effects of their policies are so clearly detrimental to non-white groups? Additionally, how might opponents to white supremacy break through the persistent and pernicious denial? I ask these questions because the neo-Confederacy has risen again, this time using electronic media to organize and spread its ideology, and “mainstream” politicians are more open to working with these groups and more willing to inject their white supremacist discourse into the mainstream public discourse.
The denial at the heart of the neo-Confederacy and its mainstream allies is based on a reversal of reality begun at the time of the Confederacy. The perpetrators—of slavery, inhumanity, oppression, violence, and treason—portray themselves instead as the aggrieved party and their victims as their oppressors. Their heirs continue the practice to the present day. Their defense of this behavior consists largely of appeals to “pride,” a neutral-sounding term that depoliticizes what the “pride” is really about (white supremacy).
I also wanted to learn about the efforts of African-American writers to break through white denial and deal with the reality of racism in America. How do such writers deal with the persistent racism of life in America? How do they deal with the violence, the lies, the broken promises and dashed hopes that make up daily life for non-whites in America?
By reviewing materials from the archives, I gather evidence about the ancestry of modern day denial and the madness and the sacrifices this denial produces.
Kelly MillerDuring my time at the Rose Library, I examined papers from both the Kelly Miller and Stone Mountain Archives. Both collections contain materials from the 1920s and 1930s, when white supremacist ideology and violence were widespread and virulent across the south and throughout the nation. The neo-Confederacy reached its peak with the rise of the second KKK following both the film Birth of a Nation and with nationwide efforts to create the Stone Mountain Monument.
Kelly Miller, with whom I was unfamiliar before I visited the archives, is an ideal writer for me to study since he articulated his positions, some of which changed over time, with great clarity and passion. Miller was a professor of mathematics and sociology at Howard University from 1895 to 1934. Of himself, he writes:
I was born with a certain equipoise of mind and am not easily swerved by the hysteria of the moment. I have incurred the reputation of not being willing to take sides in issues and controversies to which the race is so readily prone. My intellectual sanity saves me from such futile partisanship.
[“My Life’s Span” July 21, 1935. Box 17, folder 5.]
Miller recognized that improving the woeful condition of most black people in America required major policy changes. But more importantly, he understood that such policy changes required a counter-ideological movement to change the way both white and black people pictured the world.
Miller thus organized the Negro Sanhedrin, a meeting of many of the nation’s most significant black leaders, and his papers reveal he was also an insightful critic of the positions of his fellows. Miller, turning against the more ideologically charged language used by other black leaders, appealed repeatedly to practical politics, such as the solution to disease, poverty, and other social ills. He wrote in the language of the white majority, testifying to the piety and patriotism of Negroes who sacrifice on behalf of the country, hoping that recognition of their sacrifice by the white majority would lead to respect, acceptance, and protection for black people under the law. He argued that the population of black people was too small to do anything but hope for the best from white people.
The Negro constitutes an aggrieved minority of the American people, outnumbered ten to one and overmatched one hundred to one in equipment for racial contest. Any conflict between white and black means the utter destruction of the latter. The Negro can only hope to win in any issue only when he has a large contingency of patriotic and humane whites fighting on his side in behalf of justice and fair play.
[“Walter White’s Bad Advice to the Negro” July 8, 1935. Box 17, folder 5.]
Yet he is also profoundly aware of how slim his hopes are.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for the last quarter of a century has typified the spirit of agitation and protest and has directed the organized effort of the race in this behalf. This militant organization has undoubtedly accomplished sundry incidental results of considerable racial value and advantage; but comprehensively it has not been able to remove a single obstacle against which it directed its energies or yet to point out a plain path of procedure for the future. . . . In other words, the race problem in all its essential features remains unbudged. . . .
Race prejudice is the outstanding factor in the race problem in America, and indeed, in the world. We have not yet found any agency that can effectively grapple with this evil passion or seriously modify its malignant manifestations, try ever so hard.
[“Willed and Unwilled Factors in the Race Problem” July 9, 1935. Box 17, folder 5.]
Despite the grim observations evident in these documents, Miller made every effort to organize black people and to improve their conditions. At the same time, however, he turned his back on radical politics. A staunch anti-communist, Miller argued there are limits to free speech and that communists cross the line when they try to speak on Negro campuses.
Miller was most passionate about his desire to stop the epidemic of lynching, which he saw as the ultimate act of lawlessness, and he condemned America as a lawless country, probably the most lawless in the world in his view, for allowing lynching to continue. He also wrote repeatedly about the failure of the federal government to enforce the 13th-15th amendments in the states. In fact, as Miller was writing, federal anti-lynching bills failed to pass Congress multiple times, while a bill honoring the Confederacy with a memorial coin passed unanimously into law. Black Americans were sacrificed on an altar of North-South white reconciliation based on a Lost Cause religion that violently excluded black people.
Miller hoped for powerful friends who would help black people escape their desperate conditions. He threw his allegiance back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, hoping that loyalty would count for something, but it did not. He called for black people to unite with capital against labor (he changed his position on this later), because, he argued, at least capitalists would hire blacks (although always for less money than they paid whites). The unions, he understood, were anti-black, since they saw black people take jobs for less pay, thus weakening their bargaining positions. My readings of the Stone Mountain papers revealed that the same capitalists Miller called friends of black people, such as Rockefeller, were supporting the Stone Mountain committee at the same time.
Today, 80 years after Miller wrote, more black people are killed by police than were killed from lynching. There is no sign of it ending.
Stone MountainWhen I read the Stone Mountain collection—I confined myself to the letters—I found myself complicit in the logic used by the various writers who composed them. Most of the letters concern bureaucratic problems: issues about personnel, money, and publicity. I was shocked to see how unshocking, how “civic-minded,” how bureaucratic and mundane it all was. Many of the participants in the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Association (SMCMA) were the VIPs of the society: mayors and governors, generals and judges, business owners and university presidents. They frame the Stone Mountain project as non-political; they called it a project of national reconciliation, somehow denying the fact that they were memorializing traitors to the nation. But through a twist of logic, these traitors to the nation—Jefferson David, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee—who made war on the United States to defend slavery, had come to represent national values. The Stone Mountain writers were not entirely wrong to claim these men as national heroes since there was a powerful consensus in white America built around white supremacy, the core ideology of the Confederacy. White leaders deployed this consensus to enforce Jim Crow and to unite the people of North and South to make war on Cuba, the Philippines, and other majority non-white lands.
They use the logic of the white supremacy while denying they are doing so.
In the very outset of their efforts in behalf of the Memorial, the men constituting the present administration definitely established the policy that the Memorial should be a non-sectarian, non-partisan, non-sectional, non-political enterprise. This policy was not laid down at anybody’s specific wish, but simply as a matter of right and propriety – – – therefore, as a matter of course. To start out to erect a great monument to a people and a cause, and to make it anything but an all inclusive enterprise, in which all the people descended from that army, whether Jew or Gentile, Catholic or Protestant, could not take part with equal satisfaction, inevitably would doom it to failure at the start. . . .
[Letter from the Stone Mountain Memorial Publicity Director to Mr. Arthur Krock, Page 3. January 2, 1925. Box 1, folder 27]
Despite these denials, the SMCMA included Nathan Bedford Forrest, the grandson and namesake of the man who co-founded the KKK after the Civil War. Forrest was the secretary of the organization and his name was listed prominently on the SMCMA stationary heading. Forrest also wrote to the Stone Mountain Association on Klan stationary as a Klan officer.
The Stone Mountain letters are full of civic-minded language and deal with issues of personnel, money, and publicity. But such language covers an enormous amount of denial and contradiction. The letters, in fact, reveal a nearly total lack of racist language. Reading them, I can be lulled into a feeling of normalcy until I see correspondence with the KKK, which for the most part uses the same kind of business-like language as the others.
It is almost possible, on seeing letters like these, to forget that we are reading the communications of a racist terrorist organization. The title of “IMPERIAL KLONSUL” and the top of the stationary, which reads “INVISIBLE EMPIRE / KNIGHTS OF THE KU KLUX KLAN” are the only indications something is wrong and this is not ordinary business, but the business of white supremacy. Because white supremacy was so commonplace, it also happened to be business as usual.
The language of high purpose suffusing the Stone Mountain letters sets up a profound reversal: the Stone Mountain campaigners deny that they are bigots by calling their detractors bigots. I see the same language today used by the right wing in America: that those who call out the right wing’s intolerance are themselves labeled intolerant. When the right wing calls for the expulsion of Mexicans and Muslims, the right to discriminate against gay people, the jailing of political opponents, and the right to shoot black people in the street for little or no reason, these are merely expressions of their “free speech” and any opposition to it is, in their view, intolerable censorship. Each of their called-for policies, however, deprives others of free speech by denying their participation in the society. These neo-Confederate principles of the 1920s still animate the right wing in the United States.
I learned an important lesson and that is that I relativize ethics. I find myself concerned about injustices within the SMCMA– in other words, I felt sympathy for people who were treated unfairly within the organization and antipathy for those who took more than their fair share or who didn’t deliver. I am caught up, as I am in any story, with the problem of the protagonist: the person with a goal who faces obstacles. The SMCMA’s goal was repugnant, yet the leaders framed it as noble and their work certainly demanded sacrifice. I found myself wondering if their sacrifice ennobled a project I found fundamentally abhorrent.
What caught me again and again was a realization that the members of the SMCMA, like me, sought, through their words and deeds, to attain and be recognized for the personal qualities we most admire: honesty, loyalty, perseverance, etc. We may grant that they achieve high moral character on the grounds of their personal qualities, yet know that they are blind at best and willfully evil at worst in terms of the goals they have set.
What disturbed me most about the letters was how normal white supremacy was at all levels of society. The Stone Mountain project attracted prominent citizens. On the list of members on the New York committee were Bernard M. Baruch, T. Coleman Du Pont, Governor Alfred E. Smith, John D. Rockefeller, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Simon F. Rothschild, Charles M. Schwab, and many others. Governors, billionaires, bankers, judges, senators, a future president, and many of them Jews (like me). Did these Jewish men realize that the Stone Mountain project had Klan members in it and that the Klan did not like Jews? Did they feel any cognitive dissonance? Did they believe that their wealth and power insulated them? Was the project made to seem so denuded of politics that it seemed merely “civic” and therefore without a racist agenda? Or were these powerful Jewish men simply calculating their odds without a conscience and benefitting from racism and bigotry?
The SMCMA succeeded in getting Mayor Jimmy Walker, of New York, involved in selling Confederate Memorial coins. Walker, oddly, was a liberal Democrat who had denounced the KKK. J.J. Haverty (of Haverty’s Furniture) played a big role in supporting the organization. An interesting character, he was a conservative Catholic in a group aligned with the KKK, even though the KKK was virulently anti-Catholic. Haverty, paradoxically, was also a collector of modernist art who helped found the High Museum in Atlanta. The Neo-Confederates are not usually known for liking modern art.
John D. Rockefeller bought thousands of coins at a markup, but it did not generate enough cash for the SMCMA’s needs. Hollins Randolph, the president of the SMCMA, wanted his contacts to pressure the mayor of New York City to put more pressure on other rich people to buy coins. Randolph was also excited about the possibility that Roosevelt, a liberal Democrat, might become president. I find that I keep switching between being surprised and not surprised about these revelations.
The appeal of the SMCMA project, however, was limited. The Stone Mountain Association was always struggling to raise money and the project was never finished. Some neo-Confederates obviously had more zeal than others.
The Confederacy failed, itself, because the South, in the beginning, did not have the necessary spirit of consecration to unite solidly and self-effacingly behind the very leaders whom we are now revering and to whom the whole nation seeks to pay an adequate though belated tribute. If it took the supreme test of war and fiery trial of invasion to arouse Southern pride and devoted self-sacrifice then, how may we expect a simple, unsupported appeal to suffice now? It took a lot of “kick” then, and it takes a lot of “kick” now.
[Letter from H.N. Wells to A.W. Mckeand, Esqre, 3/24/26 page 4. Box 2, folder 29.]
I tell myself that the apathy the Stone Mountain project encountered might mean that there was a lack of zeal for the neo-Confederacy, or at least for its racist values. But when I compare this correspondence with the Kelly Miller papers, I realize how many privileges the Stone Mountain people had, how much power their key supporters wielded, and how mainstream their ideas were (and still are). The Confederacy is at the heart of the civil religion of the South, and it has spread to the rest of the country; the apathy of the laity in deeds does not mean they have lost the faith.
The inertia here is not ordinary apathy. It isn’t apathy at all. When a patriotic American has been called a traitor or a rebel because he is true to his ancestors’ memory, because he cherishes a reverence for a noble, if even mistaken past, he naturally isn’t looking for a repetition of the experience, unless he is convinced that a real moral issue is involved.
[Letter from H.N. Wells to A.W. Mckeand, Esqre, 3/16/26 page 6. Box 2, folder 28.]
Never in any of the SMCMA letters is there a mention of lynching or of any injustice to black people, other than comments about how everyone knows now that slavery was of course wrong and we don’t want to go back to it.
While I was in Georgia studying the Stone Mountain papers, a white female police officer was fired for flying the Confederate flag on her house. She said she didn’t know it was controversial.