Director’s Column: Studying Peace and the South
In the Fall of 2015, there will be a Southern Studies special topics course on Peace and Southern Culture taught by Dr. Ted Ownby. Learn more about it here.
The following post is taken from Dr. Ownby’s Director’s Column from the Winter 2015 Southern Register, where he discusses the origins of his idea for the course.
Martin Luther King Jr. ended his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” with the phrase, “Yours for the cause of peace and brotherhood.”
Every day we learn about more acts of violence, with all sorts of causes, technologies, and consequences. The horrific story of a woman burned in Mississippi leaves the news only because of the next horrific story in another place. And the next, and the next.
No matter how obvious or how potentially naïve it may seem, I find myself thinking a great deal about peace. And this, in my roles as a Southern Studies professor and administrator, leads to a question that may not be obvious at all. Might there be a Southern form of peace studies? Peace and conflict resolution studies is an active field of scholarship, teaching, and engagement. A quick Internet search found over 200 such programs in the US and Canada. But regional studies scholars, as far as I know, have not done a great deal to study the concept. Could we study peace in the South?
The question of a Southern form of peace studies might seem ridiculous because there has been so much support for physical force in a region with exceptionally high rates of personal violence, with histories of lynching and other racist violence, with support for gun ownership, capital punishment, stand-your-ground laws, and high military spending. But that history might make studying the South so interesting, because efforts to make peace very often respond to specific forms of violence. To make the same point more directly, maybe the South needs more peace studies.
So, what can we do? We can teach a Southern Studies course in Fall 2015 on Peace and the American South. We’ll invite specialists in reconciliation, security studies, political science, religious studies, and other fields to join us. We’ll see where the topic leads.
Simply studying the people who used the word peace poses its own potential complications, because some people who talk about peace are imagining an orderly world without dissent. For example, in The People and Their Peace historian Laura Edwards describes how people in the early 1800s Carolinas understood “the peace,” an old English concept of localized law enforcement that opposed violence and other disorder and expected people to stay within accepted roles. In another use of the term, Civil War–era supporters of the Peace Party in Southern states, primarily North Carolina, wanted a negotiated peace to preserve their honor and the institution of slavery. And Martin Luther King’s call for peace and brotherhood had a degree of irony, calling for peace in a letter he addressed to white clergymen who had asked him to slow activist efforts down, in effect calling on him to be more orderly (or peaceful) in order to be less controversial.
There are lots of arguments about peace. Many say peace only comes with justice, and with more thorough and honest communication about conflicts past and present. Some say it comes with economic development. Some say peace comes with clear rules and powerful forms of enforcement. Some say it comes from within the individual, and/or as part of religious experience and expression. We’ll study various arguments, and we will ask when and how peace enters the discussion. We’ll read King’s “Letter” and Edwards’s book and works on Southerners and diplomacy and Southern pacifists and anti-lynching efforts. We’ll study the Black Lives Matter movement. We’ll ask how individual, family, and local efforts for peace might be part of national and global efforts. We’ll study art and music that says, for instance, “Ain’t gonna study war no more,” or “Eat a peach for peace,” or “Let’s all get together / Bring peace to the world.” And when we find people raising objections that certain claims about peace are naïve or one-sided or unworkable, we’ll study the objections.
So, come join us. As B. B. King says, let’s all get together.