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Today in Historiography: How an #MLKDay Tweet About a Confederate General Sparked a Debate

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many followers of the Library of Congress Twitter account saw this post about the birth of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on January 21, 1824:

Many responses to the post were negative. Some commenters took issue with the LOC featuring the Confederate general on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Others viewed the accompanying article as “soft-selling” Jackson and his legacy in the vein of a Lost Cause narrative of Confederate Civil War history.

Later that day, the LOC responded to the criticism, saying that the post had been pre-programmed from their Today in History site and expressing regret for publishing the tweet on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Twitter tends to move on quickly from discussions, and this post was no exception. But the post and the reactions to it raised some important questions about the role of historians and historical organizations in public online conversations about sensitive and pressing issues. Some of our team’s initial thoughts were: 1) Any of us in the public history field could easily have found ourselves in this situation 2) Should we ignore the stickier events and figures from history because of the near zero tolerance climate we’re operating in, especially on social media? In what context is it appropriate to hold them up for discussion? and 3) What is the responsibility of a humanities organization or historian to make sure that content shared on social media reflects the latest scholarship?

To explore these questions, BackStory presented these points to three historians to open up a conversation about the LOC’s tweets and the broader responsibility of historians and humanities organizations in the intersection of public history and social media. [We reached out to the LOC but did not receive a response].

Keri Leigh Merritt is an independent historian and writer in Atlanta. Her response via email primarily addressed Jackson’s Confederate movement on the United States, and argued that public history should diversify its focus: “There is absolutely no reason to remember/honor the birthdays of traitors. If the majority of the country knew about the real causes of the Civil War, or realized how cruel and brutal slavery was, or how oligarchic and despotic the Confederacy was, we wouldn’t be having these conversations. There are so many amazing, accomplished Americans that we could be celebrating instead – Americans that worked to make this country better, not to destroy it. This, too, would help to diversify public history.”

BackStory also talked to Joshua Rothman, a historian and professor at the University of Alabama. Rothman reiterated some of Merritt’s points on the Confederacy, but argued against featuring Jackson on MLK Day specifically: “I don’t think there’s any responsible way for the Library of Congress to feature Stonewall Jackson on MLK Day. The cause of the Confederacy for which Jackson fought and died was the cause of enslaving black people in the United States. Featuring prominent Confederates favorably on the King holiday is as disrespectful and inappropriate as states that officially celebrate Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, or both on that day. Even featuring Confederates critically could surely wait a day.”

Rothman then addressed the LOC post’s accompanying article on Jackson: “…we learn almost nothing about his life, his family, the social context of the slaveholding society in which he was raised, or much of anything other than his military career, which is largely valorized. Moreover, his decision to fight for the Confederacy during the Civil War is presented as him volunteering to ‘serve his state’ and fighting to ‘meet the federal invasion of Virginia,’ both phrasings of a neo-Confederate understanding of why the war was fought and the justice of the causes involved.”

Finally, Gregg Kimball, a historian and the Director of Public Services and Outreach at The Library of Virginia, discussed in a phone interview how the tweet may have happened and how it reflects on ways in which humanities organizations interact with social media: “I think it brings up a deeper thing, and that is, what is the intent of a tweet by a historical organization? There are several comments on that tweet that said ‘you’re celebrating Stonewall Jackson.’ I don’t think that’s probably what Library of Congress was doing, or thought they were doing, but to an outside viewer, maybe that is what they think Twitter is for. I would say most tweets from historical organizations tend to be fairly upbeat and pointing out cool new stuff that we have and activities that we’re doing, so I think it’s really important to think about intent and what the user’s view of your intent is. That seems to be the key area where it becomes a real problem. I do think there’s a sense that just by putting it on your Twitter feed you are elevating it.”

Kimball continued his discussion of the medium, suggesting an alternative medium that could support a more serious and robust conversation: “And the other question here is we’re talking about Twitter but there’s a whole range of social media, it seems to me that a much better way to do all of this is to, you know things that are very controversial I think are much better handled on a blog where you have that ability to engage the content in a much more meaningful way. So I think that’s the other thing to think about, is what is the balance between all of the social media that’s available to you in terms of putting out certain kinds of content.”

Finally, we touched on how easily missteps can occur in the world of social media. Referring to The Library of Virginia, Kimball said: “It could happen to us tomorrow, it really could. Cause again we’re expecting people to do things quickly, we want to be relevant, so we want to capture things in the moment, or historical events maybe that reflect on something that’s happening now, and speed is emphasized with that, and that’s not necessarily conducive to being really careful about what you post.”

Kimball ended with a call for open discussion on social media: “If you’re out on social media you expect that people are going to speak back, that’s the whole concept, and we’re fine with people expressing themselves in a respectful way.”

What are your thoughts on the role of historians and humanities organizations on social media? How should we deal with controversial and difficult figures from our past, if at all? Do you agree or disagree with BackStory or the people we spoke to? Let us know what you think (in a respectful way) below. We’d love to have a conversation.

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