A Conversation with John Coski (part four)

Part four of six

John Coski is the 2019 recipient of the Emerging Civil War Award for Service in Public History. John worked as a historian at the Museum of the Confederacy before its recent evolution into the American Civil War Museum—where he still works—and has seen that transformation as a real opportunity to engage the public about a period he calls “the most important in American history.”

John Coski: The American Civil War Museum—we had changed the name, and we were evolving under our current leadership in a way that made it very clear that we wanted to engage, even more than the Museum of the Confederacy did, with the relevance of the war and the Civil War era. We wanted to participate in the public discussion today. It put us in a position to be a go-to source for journalists in particular. And [Executive Director] Christy Coleman is spending her life on the road, talking to everybody. I mean, she is just everywhere with the message of how the war is complicated, it’s more ambiguous and complicated than you might think, as well as acknowledging the centrality of slavery, which the MOC tried to do more gently, but still same idea. And she’s a wonderful spokesperson for that; she’s the face of the museum now. The message is more or less the same as it’s been, which is the complexity, the ambiguity of the experience, and trying to be an objective, trustworthy source.

So after the church shooting in Charleston [in June 2015], I got pushed to the fore to more or less be the spokesman about the Confederate battle flag. For the next couple of months, I was pretty much incessantly in front of the media, on the telephone or in front of a microphone. I lost my voice; I actually had to have throat surgery later that year. (That might have been as much from yelling at a ballgame on opening night in April as it was for talking about the battle flag, but anyway….)(laughs)

So my work on the battle flag came in real handy for the museum because my book on that, [The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem], had grown out of an MOC project in 1993 that Malinda Collier and I curated. That grew into my book, which positioned me and us as the go-to source for background information about the battle flag, which was exactly why we created that in the first place.

This kind of returns to your question about the challenges of curating. When I got to the museum in ’88, we were getting all kinds of questions, and it was just about the time the flag war started up again in Alabama and Georgia and South Carolina. The ones that were getting a lot of national attention, and the NAACP’s resolution to remove the flag from positions of sovereignty in those and other states had just been passed in ’87 and ’88. So the flag was in the news, and people would come to us and say, “Okay, what’s the Confederate opinion?” And we were kind of troubled by that. It was, like, “No, no, no you don’t understand: we’re a museum. Go to the SCV if you want Confederate opinion.” (My joke was always, “Well, I don’t know; dig one up and ask him!”)(laughs)

So we decided that the only way we were going to be able to do it on our terms was to create a new exhibit that explored the questions of how the flag acquired this symbolism. A couple of colleagues and I did intensive research on that issue. In a sense, my book is not much different. Some things developed in the subsequent ten years between the creation of the exhibit and the publication of the book, though, and my own thought evolved. It was my project, not the museum’s, from that moment on. I had complete intellectual freedom. But it started as the museum’s effort to be proactive in interpreting a position on the battle flag the way we wanted to, with objective background information. What does the public need to know to understand why there are all these fights around Confederate symbols today? That’s what you come to us for: not opinion but objective background.

Chris Mackowski: It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly fifteen years since that book came out.

JC: I’m sure it’s due for an update, although I have no plans on revising it myself. But with all the things that have happened in the last couple of years, I’m sure there’s someone interested and out there working on something.

Actually, Ashleigh Lawrence Sanders, a scholar who was here in Richmond back in May. She did a presentation on African-American memory.

CM: She was one of our “Emerging Scholars” at the new museum’s grand opening.

JC: Yeah. I think that’s the most important revision I’ve heard. I mean she found stuff that I plain ol’ missed. It’s the most exciting new revision, and I was encouraging her to publish when she can.

But the fact that the book stood up well and that it was available for hungry journalists in 2015 and for the public, it was for me a vindication of why we undertook that topic to begin with in 1993. We decided on it in 1992. It was, in a tragic way, satisfying to have that out there and know that it was the product, ultimately, of the museum deciding that that’s the responsible thing to do. And I did the work and did the writing, but it was the Museum of the Confederacy that made it happen by embarking on that subject for all the right reasons.

CM: That book was my first introduction to John Coski, and I just thought the book was brilliant. I mean, I was wowed by it just because of the way it methodically looked into the complexity of the whole issue. And it really shed a whole lot of useful light on a topic that a lot of people misunderstood.

JC: Thank you. The fact that it wasn’t very sensational, I think, worked against it. It was, you know, sort of vanilla flavored. It didn’t sell as well as perhaps some at Harvard University Press [the publisher] wanted.

There was an acquisitions editor for one of the major presses who, at the very last minute, asked to see if before I submitted it to Harvard. And he basically made some recommendations to make it a little more sexy, a little more out there and opinionated, and I said no. And Harvard was very good working with me on that. I said, “Look, I want it to be something that everybody can trust, and everybody feels that it’s fair, because it will be ineffective if anybody thinks it’s a hatchet job in one way or the other.” That was the most stressful conversation I had with them—was my insistence that neutrality had to actually be neutral, it had to be fair. And they said, “Fine, as long as it comes to a conclusion; we don’t want it to be so neutral that it has no conclusion, no recommendation, no voice of opinion of any kind.” So I kind of worked out something that was consistent with my genuine thinking. I don’t know if it went far enough in the direction they wanted, but they allowed me to do it.

Having worked at the Museum of the Confederacy, at that point, for seventeen years, I know a lot of these people—that is, people who revere the Confederacy and its symbols. I know they’re not the stereotypes that the wider world thinks they are. And their viewpoints are not as primitive or ideologically based—I don’t want to be like a clinical scientist trying to dissect people like some sort of lab rats—but I kind of know from talking to groups over the years, primarily Confederate interest groups, as well as more broad Civil War groups, I kind of know not only their thinking but I know what makes them stop thinking. I know what kind of treatment turns them off to any reasonable thought. I know how to lose their faith and their attention span, as well as how to gain it. And just being fair is essential. Otherwise, I’m just speaking to the converted. We’ve all been in these situations where there’s a forum or a workshop on some controversial topic and one side shows up and congratulates itself on how virtuous it is—and nothing, absolutely nothing, is accomplished. And I did not want to write a book that had that effect.

CM: And in essence, that would then have made you and the book guilty of what had happened over the last 150 years, where people were appropriating the flag for their own purposes. It seems like, if you’re going to examine that phenomenon, then you can’t appropriate it yourself by the end.

JC: I’ve made it more explicit in the last few years, even before Charleston, the implicit point in the book—actually, it’s not even implicit, it’s pretty explicit in the book, too—the point about the so-called misuse of the flag. Those first generations of the flag’s protectors, in the 1940’s in particular, recognized that these things that we now accept—the t-shirts with battle flags and death’s heads and things on them—that’s misuse.

If people who protect the flag and say they worship and revere it as a symbol of their ancestors—if they really, really, really want to accomplish that, they should be in the forefront of trying to prevent its use for anything but that. I mean, that’s the only way. They won’t be able to do it as long as there’s free speech in this country, Constitutionally protected speech. There’s no way; this is too-diverse a country to prevent that kind of misuse. But they should not be encouraging it. It is, most of all, in their interest to restrain its use, not to put it on interstate highways.

You know, it’s just . . . and some people get it. The flagger types don’t. They just don’t see the damage that they are doing. And, ultimately, they will be the most responsible for it disappearing from the landscape, except as a middle finger that they put up over the highways. And I think we’re kind of already there, so I’ve become more forthright in telling people, you know, the consistent position and the effective position is for you who say you love it to be in the forefront of lobbying to stop it flying anywhere but in positions of absolutely, unambiguous reverence for Confederate dead. That’s it. Anywhere outside of a cemetery or a memorial event, it says something different and you’re only going to make it worse.

That was, I think, made clear enough in the book, and I’ve become stronger as times have changed.

But, yeah, that to me is the most important thing I’ve done, and probably as a scholar will ever do. It was satisfying, not only because of the importance of the work itself but because it made an important contribution to the public discussion of a very important and emotional issue.

By the way, all three of my theses were sort of on the evolution of ideas over time. I hadn’t really realized it until after that book came out. There’s a real consistency here. Just the kind of things that interest me intellectually and get me excited intellectually is this evolution of ideas.

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John isn’t just an author of books—he’s a book lover at heart. One of his main responsibilities has been the museum’s research library. “We were the music of the Museum of the Confederacy,” he says. We’ll learn more about that, and the library’s significant impact over the year, in tomorrow’s segment.

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2 Responses to A Conversation with John Coski (part four)

  1. Ted Savas says:

    John C. has long been one of my favorite authors. He is a tremendous resource and just an all-around good guy. I am anxiously reading these posts to hear him talk about the BEST book he has written, which is also one of the most important. 🙂

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