Commentary: Since when is Southern history strictly white history?
If your precious “Southern heritage” includes swastikas, you may as well quit reading right here. But odds are astronomically high that it doesn’t. The vast majority of Southerners are as repelled by those ons as everybody else.
Rebel flags, in comparison, strike me as merely adolescent. Yee-haw!
Well, it’s time to grow up.
If that annoys you, answer me this: Since when is Southern history strictly white history, anyway?
Most of these Confederate monuments commemorate not so much the South’s glorious history of slavery and rebellion, but the bloody advent of Jim Crow laws between 1895 and 1925 or thereabouts. A time of “race riots” -- i.e. black citizens massacred by white mobs across the region from Atlanta (1906) to Elaine, Arkansas (1919) to Tulsa (1921) -- and of widespread lynching.
A time when the Klan-glorifying epic “Birth of a Nation” (1915) was screened at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson.
Ironically, rebel soldier statues were a Yankee industry. A factory in Connecticut manufactured the fool things by the hundreds and shipped them south to stand guard facing north on courthouse squares. A pointed reminder of exactly who was in charge. Specifically, the Ku Klux Klan.
There was nothing subtle about it. Photographs of Charlottesville’s equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee being dedicated in 1924 show that many in attendance wore KKK regalia. Contrary to the art critic in the White House, the statue’s not being destroyed. Plans are to relocate the monument to a park on the outskirts of town -- just as Confederate statues taken down at the University of Texas will be placed in a museum, where they belong.
Latter-day Confederate sympathizers who feel the need to genuflect to Fake History can visit them there. (Fake horsemanship, too. I have a friend indignant about the bronze Gen. Lee’s cruelly over-cranking the bridle, something the real Lee -- an excellent rider -- would surely never have done.)
But make no mistake: Fake History it is. The treasured myth of the “Lost Cause” of freedom-loving patriots fighting bravely for self-determination and “states’ rights” can’t survive even a cursory reading of secessionist documents.
Here’s Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, arguing that its “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.”
Nobody talks that way anymore except guys with swastikas. It’s no exaggeration to say that the virulent racism they preach was invented precisely to rationalize the evil of slavery. Nevertheless, that’s what the Civil War, the bloodiest tragedy in American history, was all about: protecting and defending chattel slavery, a grotesque remnant of human history. There’s nothing to be gained by pretending otherwise.
That said, I think there’s also no point in a struggle to tear down every half-forgotten Confederate memorial across the South. The war’s over and Jim Crow is gone; millions of Americans now living in the region have little interest in this aged feud. Besides, people have a right to their illusions.
As somebody who had no ancestors living in the United States at the time of the Civil War, maybe that’s easy for me to say. However, as an Irish-American who has always thought St. Patrick’s Day was nonsense (especially the vomiting in the gutters part), I’ve no sympathy with tribalized politics of any kind. Certain aspects of everybody’s past, their historical “identity” if you will, are best forgotten. Fighting over symbols gets you nowhere.
Writing in the Guardian, Lincoln biographer Sidney Blumenthal has a good idea. Instead of tearing monuments down, why not build new ones up?
“States and localities,” he suggests, “should establish commissions to build new monuments, statues and memorials, particularly across the South, to commemorate the heroes of the anti-slavery struggle, the unionists during the Civil War, advocates for Reconstruction, foes of Jim Crow and champions of the civil rights movement.”
An example of what he means can be found in Arkansas, where I live. Yes, the State Capitol grounds feature the traditional monument to Johnny Reb. But also a striking monument to the Little Rock Nine, a group sculpture depicting the brave African-American students who defied a segregationist mob to enter Little Rock Central High School under the protection of the 101st Airborne in September 1957 -- Arkansas’ most historically significant event of the 20th century.
People visit the memorial from far and near. To my knowledge, nobody finds it controversial.
Cemeteries, too, are appropriate places to memorialize the Union and Confederate dead. Meanwhile, if it’s history and heritage you want, visit Gettysburg, Vicksburg Memorial National Park, or Appomattox Courthouse, among many others. Carefully preserved Civil War battlefields are scattered across the South: real history, and solemn remembrance.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com.