June 15, 2020
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In this year’s swirl of controversy over Confederate monuments and civil rights, Professor of History Glenn McNair has a way to influence that debate far beyond his classes on the Hill.
McNair is the first African American editor of the Georgia Historical Quarterly, and the journal’s most recent issue got noticed for its lead essay about Merton Coulter, who edited that journal for 50 years. Coulter “was a romanticizer of the Old South, the Confederacy and Reconstruction who contributed to the South’s closed intellectual society and who consciously employed his skills as a historian to bolster the white South’s rejection of social justice for blacks,” according to the essay in the Quarterly.
McNair — who won the journal’s writing award named for Coulter before he was asked to occupy the post Coulter once held — laughs, “I’m sure he’s flipping over in his grave.”
Coulter’s apologist view of the Civil War is known as “The Lost Cause.” He argued that the conflict had nothing to do with slavery and that Confederate soldiers were honorable freedom fighters, and his views were written into Southern public school textbooks for decades. McNair remembers those books still being used in his Georgia elementary school.
Now McNair exerts such influence in the opposite direction. His version of the historical journal has featured cover images of newly-freed African Americans accompanying the U.S. Army on “Sherman’s March to the Sea” and Muhammad Ali coming to Atlanta for his first professional boxing match after getting his license reinstated (Ali lost it when he refused to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War).
“I bemoan the divide that has grown up between the academic historians and the general public who is interested in history and buying accessible books with good narrative writing at their Barnes and Noble,” he said. “One of my goals is to bridge that divide.”
The Quarterly’s essay about its previous editor was featured in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution political blog that included an interview with McNair. He said he has heard of only positive responses to the essay, such as people ordering extra copies of the journal.
McNair said his deep roots in Georgia allow him to edit the journal from Gambier. He joined Kenyon’s history department in the fall of 2001. He has a Ph.D from Emory University, a master of arts degree from Georgia College and his bachelor’s from Savannah State University. Before graduate school, he was a police officer and special agent with the U.S. Treasury Department.
“Coulter will probably retain the championship for longevity in the editorship, but I still like shaping the history of Georgia and helping authors realize their vision,” he said. “We are creating scholarship that will still be on the shelves 100 years from now.”