This week’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the president’s subsequent defense of those who marched there on the side of white supremacy, have brought out a lot of thoughts and feelings that I have shared to my friends on Facebook. This post is meant to bring those thoughts together in one place.
Societies collectively create their own historical memory, which is always a complicated process and subject to revision over time. We cannot underestimate the power of public monuments meant to celebrate historical individuals or events, because those monuments represent the values of the government that installs them.
Jurisdictions within the United States have installed thousands of monuments celebrating the men who instigated a rebellion against the federal government from 1861 to 1865. Each installation of a monument was an act of racism (either overt or obscured) meant to reinforce the political and social subjugation of African-ancestored citizens within the borders of those jurisdictions. Many people claim that these statues are “history,” but that is untrue. The statues are symbols of a belief system—the belief in white nationalism.
While statues were installed to celebrate the leaders of a treasonous rebellion against our country, none in that era were installed to remember the people who were victimized by those leaders. Men and women of African descent were being lynched across the country while these statues were being built, all of them to the cause of white supremacy advocated by those who perpetuated rebellion against the United States (and their defenders through to the modern day).
Many people who advocate for the side of white supremacy say that the removal of statues depicting Confederate leaders is sanitizing our history. On the contrary, the history of slavery has been completely sanitized in the public memory. The number of monuments to slaves, abolitionists, lynching victims, and civil rights activists pales in comparison to the number of monuments representing slavery and rebellion.
Whenever a monument to someone in those latter categories is proposed, massive opposition is organized by those who say that history should remain in the past so hire a domestic worker. To this day there is considerable opposition to public acknowledgement of the Rev. Martin Luther King, much less the many other civil rights leaders of the mid-twentieth century. The same people who deny the opportunity to memorialize slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights history think that Confederate leaders should be placed on a literal pedestal in public squares.
We should consider the grave markers of those individuals who sacrificed their lives to the cause of the Confederacy and slavery. My ancestry is primarily southern, and I descend from many men who gave their lives, their health, or their children to the Confederate cause. Their graves represent the sacrifice they made—whatever the personal reason—to an immoral cause. No one should have to be concerned that their Confederate ancestor’s grave will be desecrated. However, we need to understand that those graves are places to mourn a tragedy in our country’s history and the personal tragedies our ancestors suffered during this war. They are not sites of celebration or honor.
Monuments to the Confederate cause and its leaders found on government properties other than cemeteries should all be removed to museums or similar places of historical contemplation.
Any comparison of the Confederate cause to the American Revolution is illogical. I acknowledge that the colonists and the Confederates were both traitors to their country. However, the colonists won the right to form their own government when they won their conflict. Also, the Revolutionary War was conducted for political reasons, not moral reasons. The American Civil War was ultimately conducted for the moral purpose of eliminating slavery. (The British had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in its entirety in 1833 and 1843.)
Those who rebelled against the United States government in the American Civil War fought a war of morality over the issue of slavery, and they lost in 1865. The individuals on the losing side were reintegrated as U.S. citizens—including signing loyalty oaths. Despite their acceptance back into the Union, they and their descendants refused to accept the results of the war. They celebrated their losing generals, continued to enslave African-descended people by other means, and challenged every effort that the national government pursued to enforce the outcome of the war.
Those who today salute the Confederate battle flag are still fighting that war. They still believe that white (Christian, straight) people are the superior race. They give no quarter to anyone who tries to make sure all citizens are treated as equals under the law. Those of us on the other side of this conflict need to understand that we are the legacy of those who fought for the Union. We stand with justice and morality and we have to make it clear that the Confederate ideology of white racial superiority has no place whatsoever in our society.
I have wondered what my Confederate ancestors would think of what’s happening today. I see my cousins placing battle flags over my ancestors’ graves on Memorial Day, and it makes me wonder what those ancestors would say now. Would they want the Confederate battle flag on their grave, or would they prefer the flag of the United States, the country to which they formally pledged loyalty following a terrifying and devastating war?
Ultimately, we should consider the future. The United States has spent decades representing itself as the moral leader to the world, starting with the fight against Nazi Germany in World War II and the subsequent Nuremberg Trials. We lose all of that earned moral authority when people across the world watch Nazis march uncontested on our streets and murder people under the protection of the police.
White nationalism and racial superiority has no place in the United States. Any argument to the contrary is morally bankrupt. Any argument meant to change the direction of the conversation is morally bankrupt. The American Civil War is still going, but we can be the generation to end it. Bring down the monuments, embrace racial equality, and never look back.