Over the last week, I have had several lengthy conversations with otherwise well-meaning people arguing about the historical value of Confederate statues and icons. By removing these statues, they argued, we are erasing history.
The great irony of the last week is that the actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville has, if anything, hastened their demise. There are several reasons for that. First, the specter of white supremacists marching through other towns with Nazi flags, swastikas and torches unnerved a lot of otherwise would-be opposition.
Second, the specter of future violence likewise changed the decision.
But I think there is a third reason and that is that the debate made a lot of people realize two critical facts – first, these monuments were not put up strictly to celebrate history but as a reminder to people of color, particularly African Americans during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, that they remain second-class citizens.
Second, they remain a reminder to those same people that white supremacy remains in place today. And so the removal of the statues has become a symbol of tearing down white supremacy.
My friend this week posted this comment from his son who is African American:
“To every black person in America, every monument to the Confederacy – every statute honoring someone who served the Confederacy – is a burning cross reminding us that, even though the Confederacy lost the civil war and slaves were freed, nothing has really changed.”
Some have argued that the removal of Confederate statues will lead to a slippery slope effect. So we don’t do the right thing now because at some point we may push the movement too far?
To me the whole slippery slope argument is unfounded nonsense anyway. Maybe the Al Sharptons of the world want to defund the Jefferson Memorial, and others will clamor to remove slaveholders from various monuments.
Al Sharpton on the one hand, and Donald Trump on the other (he said during his press conference that removing monuments is “changing history” and “I wonder, is it George Washington next week?”) are missing the point.
There is a difference between removing memorials of people who were the product of their time and removing memorials specifically put up as reminders of white supremacy.
Mr. Trump misses the point that there is a key difference between people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who were flawed and imperfect men, like all of us, who also happened to do great things, and the generals of the Confederacy who fought for slavery and took up arms against our nation.
The New York Times this week quotes James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, who told the paper that Mr. Trump is failing to understand the difference “between history and memory.”
Altering monuments, he said is “not changing history,” but rather, “how we remember history.”
Mr. Grossman noted, as many have this week, that “most Confederate monuments were constructed in two periods: the 1890s, as Jim Crow was being established, and in the 1950s, during a period of mass Southern resistance to the civil rights movement.
“We would not want to whitewash our history by pretending that Jim Crow and disenfranchisement or massive resistance to the civil rights movement never happened,” he said. “That is the part of our history that these monuments testify to.”
The most poignant comments on this were made by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu as he removed his city’s statues.
He pointed out, “There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.”
He noted that “the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause.”
He explained, “This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy.”
Mayor Landrieu points out that “these men did not fight for the United States of America. They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.
“These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”
The mayor continued: “After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.”
The mayor drove home his point, arguing, “Should you have further doubt about the true goals of the Confederacy, in the very weeks before the war broke out, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, made it clear that the Confederate cause was about maintaining slavery and white supremacy.
He said in his now famous ‘cornerstone speech’ that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
For those who are arguing we need to preserve these statues, this is what you’re arguing for – a reminder that slavery and the subordination to the superior race “is his natural and normal condition.”
No wonder my friend’s son has such a disdain for these symbols of white supremacy.
So I say to President Trump and all of the mayors and governors out there, Mr. President, tear down these statues. Tear down these reminders of the horrors of our past and the continued source of strife in this nation. Tear down these vestiges of white supremacy and help us forge together a new nation conceived in liberty, justice and equality for all.
—David M. Greenwald reporting