Obama will observe Confederate Memorial tradition despite petition
By Marjorie Korn
The Dallas Morning News
Published: Saturday, May 23, 2009
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will send a wreath to the Confederate Memorial at Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day, rebuffing a petition from academics urging him to cease the decades-old tradition.
The petition, organized by Dallas-based historian Edward Sebesta, says signers want to end the glorification of the Civil War and recognize the Confederacy’s links to slavery.
"(The tradition) legitimizes the Confederacy, so the loss of this wreath would convert this monument into a relic," Sebesta said.
Arlington National Cemetery confirmed Saturday that the Obama administration will send a wreath to the Confederate Memorial, among other monuments at the national burial ground, a tradition set by President Woodrow Wilson and continued by presidents since.
Sebesta, an editor of the book "Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction," said the petition had 66 signatures when he sent it to the White House on Friday. The White House did not confirm that it was aware of the petition.
Sebesta said that news of Obama’s decision is "very disappointing" but that the president still had time to reconsider. Should Obama send a wreath this year, Sebesta said, he will resubmit the petition next year, and he hopes to garner 500 signatures by then.
Among the signers are James McPherson, a prominent Civil War historian at Princeton University, and Bill Ayers, an education professor at the University of Illinois made famous by his involvement with the radical group the Weathermen in the 1960s.
Jane Durden, president general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy — the group that erected and maintains the monument — said the controversy over the wreath reflects a misunderstanding that the Civil War was a defense of slavery rather than a patriotic call to arms.
"I am not totally shocked, and it’s not just with Obama, but with a lot of the American public," Durden said. "This is a very controversial subject — we realize that. But all we ask is: I respect your views on things and I expect the same in return."
The potential symbolism of the nation’s first black president withholding the wreath was not lost on the participating academics. Conversely, some, like Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy group, believe neo-Confederates will be invigorated if Obama doesn’t break with history.
"Should Obama send the wreath, it very likely would give a kind of shot in the arm to the neo-Confederate movements," Potok said.
Kirk Savage, an art history professor at the University of Pittsburgh who wrote a column in The Washington Post on the issue, said he never expected Obama to buck the trend.
"It would be a really big statement not to," Savage said. "It’s one thing to start a tradition, and it’s another thing to stop it."