History is Present

Historical Resources to Understand & Explain the Present Unrest

Historian and American Civil War Museum board member Ed Ayers recently noted that, “if we are going to explain today, and lay the foundations for movements for further social justice, we must provide our students a fuller history of racial injustice and the fight against that injustice.” At the Museum, we believe that we all have a place in an alive and evolving history, and this historical resource list and subsequent discussions can help us find that place. 

There are countless historical works that chronicle the history and evolution of white supremacy–and resistance to it. This list is offered to point our audience toward several important works that we find useful and accessible. In them, we trace contemporary issues that had particular resonance in the American Civil War era. 

It is also intended to highlight change over time. Diagnosis of contemporary issues cannot be done simply by looking at 1861, or 1865. Though many things remain distressingly similar, we must also acknowledge and account for developments between then and now, including transformations in the economy, politics, technology, culture, and even in democracy itself. 

So many of these resources are chronicles of despair and futility. But they may also be a source for hope as well. They draw attention to the fact that conditions do change, while suggesting at the struggle of so many who have forced that change to happen. Among those are historians like yourselves who have embraced new stories. As Ayers says, “the opportunity to connect yesterday and today is always urgent.” Therefore it is progress that we can do that with a more accurate history.

Narratives of racial difference

Slavery, racial violence, and structural inequities arise from what Bryan Stevenson has called narratives of racial difference–the “idea that black people aren’t fully human… that they are not capable, that they are not evolved. That ideology, which set up white supremacy in America, was the most poisonous and destructive consequence of two centuries of slavery.” Stevenson points out that slavery ended, but the narrative did not.

The theoretical basis of that narrative has changed over time. In slavery it rested in political theory and Christian justification for bondage. It evolved after emancipation, growing out of pseudosciences to undergird everything from eugenics to residential segregation. In the late 20th Century, those narratives mixed with cultural politics to drive welfare, and crime and punishment to the forefront of national narratives. 

In each iteration, we find that racism isn’t just a matter of individual bigotry, but rather systemic, structural, theories integral to the society that Americans built. 


Paul Finkelman, ed.,  Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 1st edition, 2003) (an updated edition will be available in November, 2020) 

In this short reader, Paul Finkelman offers a brisk overview of the legal, political, economic, and religious justifications for slavery and racial inequality, followed by a collection of primary documents. 

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Lacy K. Ford, Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South. Ford’s deep and extensive research into the history of the white southern proslavery argument reveals that justifications for slavery and opposition to emancipation varied in different regions of the slaveholding states. 

Charles F. Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia. Irons dives not only into the religious justification for slavery, but into the ways that white Christians enacted their racial faith in their church lives, and how black Christians responded. 


Noel Hartman, “‘The Passing of the Great Race’ @ 100,” Publicbooks.org (July 1, 2016) 

Hartman reviews the work of Madison Grant, America’s chief proponent of a pseudoscientific view of race that enlarged the narrative of racial difference to be inclusive of global populations. 

Want more? 

Robert Wald Sussman, The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea. Sussman traces the long history of the scientific study of biological race–which he notes have never existed. Sussman previewed his book in this Newsweek article.

Brook Thomas, ed., Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996) In this edition, Thomas follows the legal decisions that chipped away at the Reconstruction amendments and culminated in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that enshrined “separate but equal” in American life in 1894. 

Seeing White, “Skulls and Skin,” Season 2, Episode 8. In this episode, host John Biewen partners with historian Nell Irvin Painter and others to explore the history of scientists who have studied bone measurements and skin color to find essential differences between what they called races.  


Gene Demby, “The Mothers Who Fought to Radically Imagine Welfare,” NPR/CodeSwitch, June 9, 2019. 

Demby examines the welfare reform movement of the 1960s and 1970s and details the ways that race interacted with class, and racist stereotypes of lazy and undeserving black women was used to dismantle the social safety net. 

Want more? 

Seeing White, “Danger,” Season 2, Episode 11. Through a personal story of host John Beiwen, he and guest Chenjerai Kumanyika critically examine the narrative of dangerous black men today, and what happens if we flip that narrative. 

Policing and Incarceration

The dominant culture has devised a variety of ways to police Black men and women over time. In slavery, the chief means of control rested between enslavers and the people they enslaved, supported by the state with militias and slave patrols. 

After emancipation, however, monitoring and punishing Black people fell to the state, and in the late 19th Century–capitalist industries like mining and railroads profited from that punishment through convict leasing. The nature of criminal justice and policing has evolved, including the militarization of police forces and the rise of mass incarceration in the 1990s.


Sally Haddon, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003). 

Haddon examines antebellum slave patrols and the brutal methods they often employed to enforce slave codes and control enslaved people. After the Civil War, these methods were revived by the Ku Klux Klan and other night-riding terrorist organizations. 

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Andrew T. Fede, “Homicide Justified: The Legality of Killing Slaves in the Atlantic World,” Black Perspectives, September 16, 2017. 

Fede, based on his book Homicide Justified describes the trail of a white woman accused of murdering an enslaved person, and the legal underpinnings of her acquittal. 


This 90 minute documentary, based on Douglas Blackmon’s book of the same name, demonstrates that the policing of black men and women that increased after the end of slavery was driven by a need for capitalist industries to have access to cheap–disposable–labor. 

Want more?

Matthew Mancini, One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928.Mancini traces the policy decisions that ex-Confederate state legislatures made to dole out prisoners while finding a revenue stream for cash-poor state governments, while building a new means of racial control in convict leasing. 

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (See preview here.) Muhammad notes that the origins of modern policing was informed less by proslavery arguments, but by the modern science of statistics that reinforced the same narrative of black criminality. 


Hinton discovers that the roots of mass incarceration lie not in the 1980s War on Crime, or the 1990s War on Drugs, but instead in laws passed during the 1960s War on Poverty programs that significantly expanded police power. 

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Katie Nodjimbadem, The Long, Painful History of Police Brutality in the U.S.  Nodjimbadem covers developments in the second half of the 20th Century that contributed to the continuance of police brutality. 

Anna North, “How racist policing took over American cities, explained by a historian.” Vox, June 6, 2020. In this piece, Khalil Gibran Muhammad explores how false concepts of black criminality have been created and perpetuated by the criminal justice system. 

Racial Violence

Outside of state violence and policing, white Americans have engaged in extralegal violence, not only out of racist impulses, but also to strategically influence public policy and to terrorize black people into conforming to prescribed social, sexual, and economic roles. 


Shawn Leigh Alexander, ed., Reconstruction Violence and the Ku Klux Klan Hearings: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015)

Violence by the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction compelled Congress to investigate and to pass laws (The Third Enforcement Act of 1871) that enabled the President to suppress the Klan. This quick read includes a history of those actions, and the testimony of witnesses before the Congressional committee recounting Klan violence. 

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Keri Leigh Merritt, “Private, Public, and Vigilante Violence in Slave Societies,” Black Perspectives, November 17, 2016. 

Merritt begins a discussion of the white imperative to mete out violence on black people in antebellum America.

The 1868 Opelousas Massacre in Louisiana established that white conservatives would instigate murderous violence to prevail in an election. 

Rable chronicles the campaign of violence that ex-Confederates mounted to oppose the egalitarian policies of Congressional Reconstruction. 


Bryan Stevenson’s organization produced this report that includes an overview of the political and legal trends that gave rise to the wave of lynching that occured between the 1880s and 1920s. Includes statistical breakdowns of lynchings by state, and over time. 

Want More? 

Kidada Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I Williams explores the testimony of black victims of racial violence in Reconstruction and after and finds not only a “vernacular history” of that violence, but the political will to mount campaigns to end it. 

Crystal Feimster, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching In examining the work of journalists Ida B. Wells and Rebecca Latimer Felton (Wells exposed lies about black rape inherent in lynching, Felton encouraged white men to prove their manhood by lynching accused rapists) Feimster explores the dynamics of gender, lynching, and rape at the turn of the 20th century. 

Seeing White, Series 2, Episode 9, “A Racial Cleansing in America,” May 31, 2017. This episode recounts the 1919 expulsion of the black citizens of Corbin, Kentucky. 


This interview with historian Kathleen Belew details how historical white supremacists in America drew upon fascists and the militarized masculinity of the post-Vietnam War era to create the modern white power movement. 

Historical storytelling and the Lost Cause

The stories we tell matter. The ways that the general public talks about and remembers the American Civil War era is more than just history, but are also statements about public values and the future. 

The Lost Cause–the ex-Confederate explanation of the Civil War–described slavery as an idyllic and natural relationship of familial harmony between white and black people. It’s practitioners described domestic servitude in the same way. It created the story of Reconstruction as a dangerous experiment in racial equality that needed to be suppressed. 

Like white supremacy itself, the Lost Cause has evolved to be useful to new generations over time. It has no credibility among historians and public history professionals, but it’s currents still inform popular conversations about the south, race, the war, and American history in general. 


This quick video introduces viewers to the ways that the United Daughters of the Confederacy exerted control over historical storytelling in the American south at the turn of the 20th Century. 

Want More? 

American Civil War Museum, “On Monument Avenue” Blog Series and Exhibits. This collection of selected reading lists, primary documents, exhibits, and short essays explore the creation of Richmond’s most prominent historical landscape, and the social and racial contexts that surrounded it. 

Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913 Foster’s pioneering work explores how the Lost Cause developed as much as a response to rapid change in the last two decades of the 19th Century as it was a historical story ex-Confederates told themselves. 

Caroline E. Janney, Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause.  Southern white women in the early post-war years took a lead in creating the Lost Cause memorial landscape. 

Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture. When the daughters of Confederate men and women came of age, they exerted great political power in their efforts to not only memorialize their parents’ generation, but also to vindicate the Confederacy. Cox traces the rise and evolution of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. 

Adam H. Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (See also the video of our book talk.) In this short book, Domby highlights the rather frequent instances of the lies that white southerners told when creating a memorial landscape. 


Lost Cause Myth. Inclusive Historians Handbook. 

In this essay, the author notes how the Lost Cause story of the old south and the Civil War adapted itself to new conditions after the turn of the 20th century. It changed, and eventually lost credibility among historians and museum professionals, while continuing to influence popular memory in each new generation. 

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Backstory Radio, “Rallying Behind Racism: The Women of White Supremacy” October 18, 2019. This episode covers 19th and 20th century women’s engagement in white supremacist movements, and focuses on women in the Klan in the 1920s, in Massive Resistance to school integration in the 1950s, and the white power movements of post-Vietnam America. 

John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem. Coski notes that the ways white southerners thought about the Confederate battle flag transformed over time from a sacred symbol not to be abused to a political banner brandished to express opposition to the Civil Rights movement.  Also, listen to Coski on NPS’s Morning Edition in 2015

Kevin M. Levin, Searching for Black Confederates, the Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth. Levin explores the ways that white Americans interpreted the presence of black men in the Confederate experience, and how that interpretation has changed over time, including it’s vitality in the Internet age. (See also the author’s article, “The Pernicious Myth of the ‘Loyal Slave’ Lives on in Confederate Memorials.”)


Gaines M. Foster, “Today’s Battle Over the Confederate Flag Has Nothing to Do with the Civil War,” Zocalo Public Square, October 23, 2018.

Foster critically notes that proponents of public display of Confederate flags think, or know, little about the American Civil War, but instead brandish it to express contemporary racial, cultural, and political grievances. 

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Jason Dailey, Study Reveals Deep Shortcomings With How Schools Teach America’s History of Slavery, Smithsonian Magazine, February 7, 2018. The Smithsonian reports on a study detailing the difficulty of teachers and students to grapple with the history of slavery and racism even today. 

Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler, “The Costs of the Confederacy,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 2018. This investigative report explores historic sites, memorials, and graveyards that tell Lost Cause stories while still receiving governmental funding. 

Resources for talking about race and racism today.

History provides a deep perspective about how we arrived to now. But what do we do with that knowledge? For people confronting the reality of racism and systemic inequalities in a sustained way for the first time, processing it with yourselves and with your children can be a daunting task. Below are resources that we recommend for those setting out on that journey–or for those who are already on it. 

For adults and caregivers:

Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, Talking About Race 

This new (and growing) website of resources designed to understand the construct of race and its impacts, with collections especially for educators, parents/caregivers, and people committed to equity. 

Want more? 

Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Anti-Racist 

Kendi examines history, science, law, and philosophy to attack the notion of racial hierarchy, and exhorts readers to take any number of actions, because doing nothing is consent. 

Seeing White podcast, How Race Was Made, Season 2, Episode 2. Traces the modern development of the concept of race. episode 2. 

Science Museum of Minnesota, Race: Are We So Different? Resources from the groundbreaking travelling exhibition help readers explore the historical, scientific, and cultural assumptions about race. 

For children: 

CNN Moderators and Sesame Street characters host a virtual town hall for kids and families, featuring child development experts, elected officials, police officers, and kids from around the country discussing ideas of race, injustice, and protest. 

Want More? 

Books and digital resources for parents and educators recommended by our education team. (See also our “Civil War Books for Kids” resource)

The Kojo Nnamdi Show, Kojo for Kids: Jason Reynolds Talks about Racism and the Protests, June 1, 2020Kojo Nnamdi is joined by YA author Jason Reynolds, one of the authors of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, for call-in questions from youth, especially about racism past and present. 

Meghan Holohan, How to talk to kids about racism, protests, and injustice (Today Show), June 1, 2020. The Today Show interviews Dr. Jacqueline Dougé, a Maryland pediatrician and an author of the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement “The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health” with specific strategies for how adults can talk about topics with kids of various ages.