Point of View

Historical censorship should be a concern

April 3, 2013 

Gov. Pat McCrory is, from all accounts, a man dedicated to helping North Carolina move ahead. However, on March 29, he made a serious mistake.

At first glance, maybe ordering (through his Secretary of Cultural Resources) the removal of an historical exhibit of period flags from the historic old State Capitol might seem like a minor concern. After all, we’re not talking about the budget, roads or schools. But the removal of that exhibit of the historic Confederate battle flag because of political pressure from an individual, the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, who has never supported McCrory in anything and most likely never will, is both in error historically and politically.

The purpose of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, and in particular its Historic Sites Division, in this exhibit, was to portray the exact way the old Capitol looked during the tragic War Between the States period (1861-1865), and to do so with balance in the context of our lived history. After all, the old Capitol is an historic site and serves as a museum; the legislature meets over in the newer Legislative Building, and only very rarely uses the 1840 Capitol building ceremonially.

Accordingly, historical flags of the period were hung upstairs in the House chamber of the historic State Capitol as a part of an exhibit (not in Gov. McCrory’s office downstairs at the far end of the building). Signage and docents were there to conduct tours and inform visitors about that painful period. As part of the sesquicentennial commemoration, the exhibit was scheduled to be there until the end of observances in 2015.

This, as Historic Sites director Keith Hardison explained, was entirely correct historically, since such flags did indeed hang in the old Capitol during that period. The object, very clearly, was to represent our history, all of our history, including some items and symbols that not everyone might approve of today and that might be painful to some.

As Hardison pointed out, the historian’s role is not to censure the past, but to portray and illustrate it as accurately as possible. On the contrary, the NAACP president apparently sees himself as the unelected arbiter of anything and everything in our state, including real and tangible portions of our collective history that he interprets as “offensive.” He complained loudly that the battle flag should not be displayed in the old Capitol, even though it was part of a strictly historical display and not displayed in any political or offensive manner. He insisted it had to go.

This is where the misguided action of the governor’s office makes this issue much more than the usual complaint by Barber. The caving-in to political pressure by the governor and his secretary is very troubling. From a simple political consideration, Gov. McCrory must know that there is absolutely no way that he can ever placate Barber politically.

But more disturbingly, this action, for all the misplaced good intentions that Gov. McCrory and his secretary may well have had, indicates that the highly contagious infection of “political correctness” and the willingness to censure our history if a pressure group shouts loud enough has reached the halls of power in Raleigh.

Applying a litmus test to whether a portion of our history can be displayed at a state historic site, even if that portion is essential to understanding our history, is the worst kind of censorship. Such action is not worthy of our governor, certainly not of a governor who wants to represent our state, its people, and all its history.

Thomas Smith is the Commander of the North Carolina Division of The Sons of Confederate Veterans.

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