VU professor’s essay sparks ‘Confederate’ backlash
By By HOLLY EDWARDS, Staff Writer
Anger that has been brewing for months over Vanderbilt University’s deletion of the word ”Confederate” from Confederate Memorial Hall has boiled over in recent weeks in the wake of a professor’s comments about slavery and racism in the South.
Outraged Southern heritage groups have launched Web sites, posted counter-opinions on the Internet, flooded their organizations’ offices with more than 1,000 phone calls and e-mails and demanded that professor Jonathan Farley be fired in the weeks since Farley’s essay appeared in The Tennessean.
In the Nov. 20 opinion column, titled ”Remnants of the Confederacy glorifying a time of tyranny,” Farley said he believed all of the Confederate soldiers and leaders should have been executed at the end of the Civil War for torturing and murdering black slaves.
Farley also called the Confederates ”cowards masquerading as civilized men” and said modern-day Southerners who deny the Civil War was about slavery are ”the new Holocaust revisionists.”
The statements sparked heated exchanges, punctuated with insults, between Farley and members of Southern heritage groups who viewed the essay as an attack on their ancestors and a misstatement of history.
”Confederate groups deserve the same tolerance as any other group, and it shouldn’t automatically be assumed we are demons with fangs out to harm African-Americans,” said Terry Compton of Virginia, who has written rebuttals to Farley’s essay for Southern heritage Internet sites. ”Jonathan Farley is a big advocate for slavery reparations, and I think he is just looking for a scapegoat.”
E-mail exchanges that both Farley and his detractors describe as insulting and threatening were posted on the Internet. Farley said he had received several death threats and more than 100 phone and e-mail messages — some supporting his position. Farley said he intended to notify the police of all threatening messages — samples of which he provided to The Tennessean — but had not done so as of yesterday.
The math professor — a graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities — said in an interview yesterday that people were upset because they were not used to an African-American man ”looking them directly in the eye.”
”If I had written this essay in 1952, I’d be dead right now,” Farley said, adding that he did not abide by Martin Luther King Jr.’s doctrine of passive resistance.
”I am not the Reverend Doctor Farley. I am not going to respond to the Confederates’ vicious, hostile actions by embracing them.”
The controversy begins
Southern heritage groups’ clash with Vanderbilt began in February when university officials decided to remove the word ”Confederate” from a Peabody College campus residence hall after years of controversy surrounding the name. The measure angered Confederate heritage groups that viewed the university as rewriting history and rejecting Southern culture.
In October, the United Daughters of the Confederacy filed suit against the university, saying the name change violated contracts between the UDC and the former George Peabody College of Teachers, now a part of Vanderbilt. In 1935, the UDC raised $50,000 to help Peabody build the residence hall, and Vanderbilt did not consult members of the UDC before making the name change.
To some members of the community, the actions of both Vanderbilt University and the Southern heritage groups are misguided.
Longtime Nashville resident, author and historian John Egerton said he believed university officials would have better served students by explaining history rather than by trying to erase it. And, he said, some members of Southern heritage groups were using the preservation of Confederate history as a veil for white supremacist beliefs.
He said Farley’s assertion that Confederate soldiers should have been executed was absurd because in the Civil War — as in all wars — soldiers did the ”dirty work” of their leaders.
”All of this just shows we haven’t fixed anything,” Egerton said of the controversy. ”One of the reasons we still have racism is we tend to keep a sullen silence or sweet-talk one another instead of having a candid conversation about why we’re in this mess.”
The word spreads
Farley’s essay was quickly disseminated to readers throughout the country via Internet on such Web sites as Southern Heritage News and Views and the Southern Independence Party of Tennessee — a group reporting about 3,000 members who support formation of a separate Southern republic.
While Farley said he expected a negative response, he said he was surprised by how rapidly the heritage group members organized their response.
”The Confederates have a national network, and within four hours of the paper coming out, Confederates all over the country decided my career had to be destroyed,” Farley said. ”They wrote the chancellor, they found out where I worked, and they wrote the chair of my department.”
One correspondent, D.S. Davis of Eureka, Calif., said he got into a heated e-mail exchange with Farley after he read Farley’s essay online. Davis said he got an insulting and ”childish” response from Farley; Farley would neither confirm nor deny e-mail messages attributed to him.
”In my opinion, he is mentally unstable and very likely capable of doing students and the university some substantial physical damage,” Davis wrote in an e-mail message to a Tennessean reporter. ”I think he needs to undergo psychiatric treatment and forced hospitalization immediately.”
University officials are standing behind Farley’s right to express his opinions publicly. ”Our faculty have, by virtue of their academic freedom, the ability and authority to say anything they want,” said Michael Schoenfeld, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor for public affairs. ”We also encourage civility and respect, and we want our faculty to be responsible with this right.”
Heritage groups respond
Some who disagree with Farley’s views say he should be fired because of his ability to influence young people at the university.
”You can just feel the hate inundating from that essay, and frankly I think he should be terminated because of his racial views,” said Jack Leard of South Carolina, a member of Sons of Confederate Veterans. ”I think contact with people like him is like a poison that spreads.”
Madison Cook, chairman of the Southern Independence Party of Tennessee, said he received more than 1,300 calls and e-mails from members who were shocked and outraged by Farley’s column.
While many said they thought the professor should lose his job, Cook said he believed Farley’s supervisors should simply explain to him why his essay demonstrated ”bad judgment.”
”I’m all for free speech, but calling for executions and slavery reparations is absurd. It’s out-and-out nonsense,” Cook said from his headquarters in Granville. ”I think Farley’s bosses need to sit down and chat with him about what’s appropriate and what isn’t.”
As did others, Cook said he believed Farley’s essay was a continuation of the university’s effort to rewrite history. ”Changing the name of a dorm is politically correct crap,” he said. ”These people are the historical revisionists.”
Some support Farley
Although Farley said most of the phone calls and e-mails he had received were from those who disagreed with him, he said he also received several letters and e-mails of support after his opinion piece ran.
Hector Rosario, a doctoral student at Columbia University, said he supported Farley’s right to speak his mind, regardless of whether he agreed with all of Farley’s opinions. He said he had written letters of support for Farley and asked his friends to do the same.
For Rosario, the most troubling aspect of the story has been the death threats Farley has described and the attacks on his career. ”That lack of tolerance is extremely corrosive,” he said.
Rosario added that most people cannot understand what it’s like to be an African-American man — particularly a well-educated African-American man — living in the South. ”You are always on the defensive and always trying to prove you have a right to exist, because you are looked at as something less than other human beings,” he said.
But some members of Confederate heritage groups say it is they who are forced to be on the defensive by those who cast all of them as racists.
”The Confederate flag is seen as a racist symbol, but to me it’s a symbol of people willing to fight and die for freedom,” Leard said. ”It represents a group of men willing to fight against overwhelming odds to defend a country they loved.”
Despite the rift between the two sides, the controversy sparked by the dorm name change and Farley’s essay may at least get people on both sides talking, Egerton said.
”What Jonathan Farley did was push all this stuff on top of the table where people from each extreme can shoot at each other,” he said. ”Maybe a more rational approach will emerge from it.”
© 2002 The Tennessean