On July 1, I received an e-mail from a fellow Yale student. She urged me to sign a petition to change the name of Calhoun College, a Yale residential building named after John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina statesman who graduated from Yale in 1804. The e-mail called Calhoun “the U.S.’s most ardent supporter of slavery.” I clicked on the petition, which began: “It is deeply upsetting that it has taken a tragedy such as the shooting in Charleston to initiate the removal of symbols of white supremacy from public spaces.”
Just weeks before, Dylann Roof shot nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church because they were black. This is the kind of racism white America knows how to deal with. It is the racism I learned about in high school. Klan racism, Bull Connor racism. “You are raping our women,” Roof had said before he sprayed the church with blood. Roof wanted his actions to launch a race war. In photos on his website, he posed proudly with a Confederate flag.
Like most people, I was livid about Charleston. I wanted to strip the Confederate flag from every statehouse, every town square, every lawn. But on Calhoun, I froze. A Confederate flag was easy. Calhoun seemed more complicated. I abhorred the man and his ideas, of course. But maybe his name on a building was a good way to remember that? Should Yale forget John C. Calhoun? I imagined a student asking, four or five years down the road, “Calhoun who?” I didn’t sign the petition.
Conversations about race at Yale boiled over on November 5. Students confronted Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway in the middle of the campus and, for the better part of three hours, tried to explain why they were hurt and angry. I wasn’t at Yale when this happened. I was in Atlanta, doing research for a paper on the Atlanta Cyclorama, a painting that many have interpreted as a commemoration of the Confederacy. When I received texts from my friends telling me what was going on at Yale, I was in an archive reading an article about the premiere of Gone With the Wind back in 1939.
Mayor William Hartsfield declared the day of the premiere a holiday in Atlanta. The city was festive and frenzied. Atlanta’s own Margaret Mitchell had written a book about Atlanta’s own battle, and just three years later Hollywood—Clark Gable!—had made Atlanta’s own film. In the days leading up to the premiere, the city rewound some 70 years. The Loew’s Grand Theatre had been specially renovated, its façade transformed into a Southern mansion. Newspapers ran thick souvenir editions with detailed instructions for the rebel yell. Young men and young women asked their grandparents if they could borrow clothes. The hoop skirt returned. The gray uniform was passed down. Oh, and did they still have their swords?
That night, 18,000 Atlantans lined an avenue to watch their past parade by. The past came in a shiny black car. Hattie McDaniel, whose performance the Atlanta Constitution adored, was not in the car and was not at the theater. Blacks were not allowed in the Loew’s Grand. Margaret Mitchell was in the car, and she was very pleased. “I feel it has been a great thing for Georgia and the South to see the Confederates come back,” she said, beaming.