Department Statements

March 18, 2021

As social justice movements swept the nation in the summer of 2020, the History Department issued a statement condemning the systemic and violent racism that continues to plague our nation.  Racism takes many forms – some are intentional, while others are symbolic.  All forms of racism are harmful and damaging.  In light of the 2014 photos that have recently re-surfaced of the Dean of the Mitchell College of Business and two faculty members wearing costumes that contained the Confederate uniform with a Confederate flag affixed, a noose, and a whip, we are again compelled to respond.

It remains vague as to when the University administration became aware of the photos, but its initial inaction is unacceptable.  The outrage that students feel is not directed solely at the photos, but is instead indicative of their frustration with a campus climate that enables such symbols to be displayed with little to no thought of their deeper meaning or their impact on our students.  This can be seen in the way the administration handled the nooses found hanging in trees in 2018, the lack of equity, inclusiveness and diversity in university structures, the perceptions of bias found in variety of forms that have no place in our communities, and the glorification of the Confederacy and Jim Crow South in place names across campus and the wider Mobile community.

Students of color are hurt, angry, fearful and traumatized—we hear them and believe them.  They are, as civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said in 1964, “sick and tired of being sick and tired” and frustrated by apologies followed by little action.   

As historians, we know that we must look backward in order to understand the present and to move forward to make meaningful change.  The best way to understand in the present the power of these symbols and objects, like the Confederate flag or noose, is to put them into historical context.

The South seceded from the Union in 1860-61 to defend the institution of slavery. Secessionists exploited widespread fear among white southerners that Republicans, led by President Abraham Lincoln, would move to abolish slavery where it existed. During the Civil War that ensued the Lincoln government made emancipation of the enslaved in Confederate states a war aim; the 13th amendment emancipated all enslaved Blacks. Over the next ten years of Reconstruction, Black Americans secured political, legal, and property rights that whites had claimed as a privilege of the superior race. If Black Americans possessed equal political and legal rights, white southerners worried, then the idea of white superiority meant nothing.  

White southerners, then, struggled for two decades to reverse the gains emancipated Black Americans made during Reconstruction and reestablished unambiguous white political, social, economic, and cultural supremacy. Driven by a naturalizing ideology of white supremacy, white political leaders, supported by majorities of citizens across the South, would establish the system of legal marginalization of Black Americans commonly known as Jim Crow segregation. The Mitchell College of Business photographs evoke one theme, the veneration of the Confederate soldier, and one tactic, the lynching of Black Americans who challenged the restoration of the white republic, which were typical features of white supremacist campaigns to create a legal system of Black subordination.  In this revised history of the Civil War, which became known as the “Lost Cause,” the Confederate soldier fought to defend the Constitutional principle of states’ rights. Obscured in this narrative of the “Lost Cause” is that the South seceded to defend enslavement. The imposition of Jim Crow segregation then became part of this narrative, framed as a longer southern struggle to defend the Constitution against the centralizing tendencies of a federal government dominated by northern radicals.  In reality, Jim Crow segregation was a strategy for completing the counterrevolution that had begun with the redemption campaigns that ended Reconstruction. Statues of Confederate soldiers went up across the South in the 1890s as state after state approved laws disenfranchising Black Americans and imposing a degrading system of legal segregation. These statues and other celebrations of Confederate soldiers were cultural expressions of the ideology of white supremacy intended to intimidate Black Americans into acquiescence. And if someone dared to challenge white domination, they risked death by hanging, or lynching. As was true of the system of slavery, violence was the ultimate sanction for Black Americans who resisted the Jim Crow system. Lynching surged in the 1890s, as vigilantes revived the domestic terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan years in support of the political, economic, and cultural restoration of white supremacy that had begun during Reconstruction. 

Black Americans never accepted Jim Crow segregation. Their struggle to realize the promise of the 14th and 15th amendments through legal action and protests began to bear fruit in the 1930s as federal courts chipped away at the legal foundation of de jure segregation. By the 1950s, multiple Black organizations--the modern civil rights movement--led protests across the South demanding the enforcement of federal court decisions that abolished legal segregation in schools and public accommodations and struck down laws designed to suppress Black Americans’ voting rights.  In reaction, southern whites formally and informally engaged in “massive resistance” to what they framed as a continuing southern struggle against federal tyranny. Just as their ancestors had denied that Confederates fought to defend slavery, these neo-Confederates denied that they fought to maintain the domination of the white race. Not surprisingly, White Citizens Leagues, the Ku Klux Klan, politicians, and much of the southern white public appropriated Confederate symbols and the “Lost Cause” myth of the Confederate defense of the states’ rights. Political rallies featured the one or more versions of the Confederate flag, men dressed as Confederate soldiers, and women dressed as “southern belles.” Some whites, seeking to intimidate Black Americans, again resorted to terrorism, including in 1981 the lynching of Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama.  Such terrorism exists in the present.  Confederate icons and the whip and noose constitute a statement of support for white racial supremacy and the willingness to employ violence if necessary to defend white domination.   (For additional exploration of Confederate symbolism and historical context, see the Documentary Short Film Confederate Flagrant (2010) produced, directed and written by USA Alums Daniella Werner, Michael Winters, Brendan Davis and Josh Harlan).

The History Department reaffirms that these dynamics and realities are harmful whether on campus or in our society. Through our teaching, research and service to the university, the History Department provides a safe learning environment so that we may confront the painful and damaging elements of our past in order to make meaningful change in the present and future. Such change encompasses concrete action to promote social justice and equity within our Department, College and University.  In our Department public statement of July 2020, we set out concrete ways that we, as a Department, can help make desperately needed changes.  The list is long and our goals not yet fully realized, but we continue our work to connect words with action so that statements such as this one are not meaningless, but instead serve as a reminder of why we are here and why we do what we do.  We invite you to read our July Statement below.

▼   July 2020 Statement

JULY 7, 2020

Over the last three months, we have witnessed, yet again, the profound and deadly consequences of racism in the United States of America. From the exceedingly disproportionate number of pandemic deaths affecting African-American communities to the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks by the police and white vigilantes, we are bearing witness to its many shapes and forms. As historians, we understand current systemic racism in America has deep and pervasive historical roots in the violent, racist, and white supremacist ideologies constructed globally and nationally. We believe all citizens have a civic duty to address honestly and with compassion the painful elements of our past. For Mobile, this includes the forced removal of indigenous peoples, the brutal enslavement of Africans and African-Americans, decades of Jim Crow segregation, and the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald.

Although Civil Rights activists, the community, and city officials have made important progress, the legacy of racism remains. Like the rest of the nation, minority communities in Mobile have experienced police brutality and abuse. Too many people in our area lack access to health care, suffer poverty, and experience food insecurity. The slow and systematic defunding of public education has disproportionately affected African American neighborhoods, which in turn creates a new cycle of reduced opportunity.      

In Mobile, as well as around our nation, and the world, the response to the recent killings and all that they symbolize has been rapid as communities mobilize for justice. We are hopeful that the current worldwide protests are opening a new historical phase in the dismantling of racism. We are in solidarity with the millions in the U.S. and around the globe protesting and affirming that Black Lives Matter. We are further encouraged by activities in our own community and have identified contributions that we, as historians and educators, can make in this moment as we advocate for positive change in Mobile and work towards creating a more affirming, inclusive and equitable University of South Alabama.

Diversify our faculty and course offerings. Almost a quarter of the University of South Alabama student body is African American. We recognize an urgent need to diversify our course offerings and our all-white faculty in the History Department, a problem reflected throughout our university and in universities across the nation. In order to create a faculty and curriculum that better represents and address the needs of our diverse student body, we resolve to do the following:

Petition university administrators to restore the position in African American History, left vacant following the retirement of our previous specialist.

Petition university administrators to transform the interdisciplinary African American Studies Minor into a Major, with the goal of making it the leading program in our region.

Petition university administrators for enhanced resources to increase course offerings dedicated to examining diversity more broadly.

Participate in a collaborative initiative with African-American Studies and the Honors College to establish funded History internships focusing on important local sites such as Africatown.

Expand internships and curriculum featuring outreach for marginalized and underrepresented communities.

Coordinate with the university’s Chief Diversity Officer to determine best practices for diversifying the faculty in future hires.

Reassess the teaching of diversity in our current curriculum and make improvements where possible using available resources.

Strengthen existing relationships with the Secondary Education Social Studies program in the College of Education to better support History/Secondary Ed majors.

Create new networks and partnerships with local primary and secondary educators.

Continue to engage in anti-racist education by identifying and confronting historic structures of inequality that persist through the present.

Increase our department's community engagement in public historical activities in the the Mobile Bay Metropolitan Area and the State of Alabama in the following ways:

Enhance programs and establish new internships serving historical sites of underrepresented communities. We have already begun preliminary conversations with community leaders and potential partners at USA.

Support the re-evaluation and relocation of monuments, place names, and holidays. We have already called upon city leaders to form a fully representative citizen committee to compose an inventory of confederate and segregationist monuments and place names. We have invited city leaders to a dialogue on this matter and volunteered our time and expertise for that initiative;

Press state leaders to repeal the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, which hamstrings local governments from making appropriate choices for their communities; and

Expand coalitions with people engaged in the practice of state and local history for the purposes of historical advocacy.

Support our institution in identifying inherent discriminatory practices in higher education and create more opportunities for student access. We call upon university administrators do the following:

Implement a broad range of initiatives to recruit, retain, and graduate students from marginalized communities.

Eliminate standardized tests, which research shows discriminates against socially culturally marginalized people and privileges the most wealthy.

Create more scholarships for students from marginalized communities.

Use student, staff, and faculty input to establish additional methods of support for underrepresented groups above and beyond scholarships.

Establish mandatory diversity and anti-racist training for students, faculty, and staff as proposed by the Student Government Association, with a long term goal of a more comprehensive in-house program tailored to the needs of University of South Alabama.

Introduce a required course on diversity into the general education curriculum, as well as a diversity certificate.

Provide resources and strategies to departments for diversifying open faculty lines.

Expand reach and resources for the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.

Establish diverse hiring committees to work with search firms to ensure diverse candidate pools, particularly African-American candidates, for higher administrative positions.