Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The Plywood Steps

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on February 19, 2011

Today the SCV will be sponsoring a sesquicentennial parade and reenactment of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy at the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. It will be interesting to see how many folks turn out for this event, and what sort of media coverage it gets.

I’ve never visited the Alabama State Capitol, but it nonetheless resonates with me because of a story told me many times by an old friend. In the summer of 1965 he was in high school, and lived with his family in Houston. The family’s social life revolved around church, where my friend’s father was music director and a deacon, and their vacations usually consisted of going to family reunions. This was not a lot fun for a teenager.

My friend prevailed upon his parents that summer to fore-go the usual family reunion, and instead take a long driving trip across the South, with particular attention to visiting Civil War sites. This was in the last year of the Civil War Centennial, and my friend already had a pretty big fascination with the subject.

Their visit to Montgomery came a few months after the famous Third Selma-to-Montgomery March, which had ended with a rally at the State Capitol, yards from the spot where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in a century before. My friend remembered that event vividly, and was as interested to see the Capitol as much for that recent history as for its association with the Civil War. One thing he remembered clearly from watching coverage of the anticipated rally was that the capitol steps, at least some of them, had been covered with sheets of plywood. These formed a steep slope, and my friend hadn’t quite figured it out. Maybe, he thought, they’d been put out to allow people in wheelchairs to participate in the rally, but they seemed at too great an incline for that.

So when he actually visited the Alabama State Capitol a few months later, my friend made it a point to ask about the plywood. What was it for, he asked a state trooper on duty nearby. What was the purpose of the plywood covering the capitol steps?

“So the coloreds couldn’t desecrate them,” was the trooper’s answer.

Is it fair that I think of that story every time I see a mention of the Alabama State Capitol or Jeff Davis’ inauguration? Probably not, but the paths our minds take when we think about things, and how we feel about them, often isn’t fair. It just is.

My friend, a son of the South, continued his fascination with the war, and the Confederacy. By his own admission, he bought into the Lost Cause without hesitation, even tacking up an enormous Confederate Battle Flag in his college dorm room at a school that had only desegregated a few years previously. But looking back on his youth now, all these decades later, he sees that offhand comment by the Alabama state trooper at Montgomery, juxtaposed against Jeff Davis’ inauguration and the Selma-to-Montgomery March, to have been the first, crucial step in his questioning of the Lost Cause and developing a more mature, complex understanding of both the history of the war and the historical heritage of his own family. It was the beginning of a hard process of realization, and it took him a long time to understand the realities of those events, and ugly legacies of them that have come down to us, right to the present day.

Added: Scott MacKenzie, via Kevin Levin, attended today’s event (with a little cardboard “UNIONIST” sign) and has the pictures.

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Image: Inauguration of Jefferson Davis, Montgomery, Alabama, 1861. Library of Congress.

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10 Responses

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  1. BorderRuffian said, on February 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    I’ve found three photos of that event. One gives a full view of the Capitol steps.

    There’s no plywood.

    But don’t let the truth get in the way of a good PC story.

    • Andy Hall said, on February 20, 2011 at 6:35 pm

      BR, I fully expected to get this sort of response from you. Glad to see you don’t disappoint.

      What I’ve posted here is my friend’s recollection — no more and no less. Neither I, nor he, assert that memory is infallible. I’m aware that photos of the March 25, 1965 rally don’t show this; I looked for them before posting this. But my friend never claimed that it was there on March 25, only that he remembered seeing it shown on television that that was being done. It’s also possible that it was planned but not actually done, or put in place but removed before March 25. It’s entirely in keeping with what did happen; it’s documented, for example that the Davis innaugural star was similarly covered on George Wallace’s order.

      You sneer, “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good PC story.” But there’s no reason for someone to lie about this, as it changes our understanding of the actual event not one whit. State and local officials, and white citizens on their own, did everything they could to stop the three Selma-to-Montgomery marches, including one that was intended to end up on the steps of the capitol but ended instead on Bloody Sunday. At least one civil rights worker was murdered in cold blood after the March 25 rally. The actions of public officials from George Wallace on down, supported by a substantial segment of Alabama’s white, segregationist public, is a deeply-ingrained stain on your state’s history, and one more anecdote about it, whether accurate or not, doesn’t wash it clean.

      My friend’s memory may be inaccurate; maybe it was only the part of the portico around the star. Either way, his encounter with the state trooper months later proved to be profoundly affecting on his outlook regarding the history of both the war and, more recently, the Civil Rights movement, and those things that remain to be done.

  2. Richard said, on February 20, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing this story, I especially like the comment about developing a mature and complex understanding of history. This weekend I was in Charleston, SC and visited the John C. Calhoun monument. I dont know if my blood sugar was low but I swear when I looked up at him on top of that monument I think he gave me the middle finger. lol

    1782-1850 Truth, Justice, and the Constitution.

    http://cwmonuments.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/john-caldwell-calhoun-monument/

  3. Will said, on February 21, 2011 at 8:27 am

    I’m gonna go ahead and presume a high percentage of Tea Party membership (or at least sympathy) among attendees.

    So nice to see those Real American Patriots(TM) raising a traitor’s flag over an American state capitol.

    • Andy Hall said, on February 21, 2011 at 9:13 am

      Your presumption, as they say, in not incorrect. There was a Gadsden Flag prominent in the audience; while the Gadsden Flag was become synonymous with the Tea Party over the last two years, a prominent online SCV defender over at Kevin’s blog argued that it was present solely because it was a Southern flag. (That form of the Gadsden Flag was created by a South Carolinian, based on imagery (snake and motto) from Taxachusetts Massachusetts.)

      More generally, I suspect that there is widespread support for the Tea Party within the ranks of the SCV and its allies generally. If you look around the web at the blogs and websites most active in pushing the SCV’s chosen historical narrative, you’ll see that they spend as much or more space commenting or advocating on current political issues that have no direct bearing on the Civil War. They’re completely entitled to do so, of course, but it undermines the notion that they’re strictly an historical, non-partisan organization that confines itself to issues involving the war and its commemoration.

  4. Woodrowfan said, on February 25, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    It’s also possible that your friend is transposing two different events, possibly two different places even. One of my students is doing a project involving oral histories of Korean War veterans. One of her interviewees went on at length about the role of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Korea.

    As any good historian knows (including Andy of course) such stories need to be placed in context, checked against existing records, and not taken at face value. Sometimes, however, even false stories are interesting for what they reveal. Your friend’s story, if nothing else, is interesting for how he remembers how the civil rights protesters were viewed by those around him.


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