As has been the case following earlier racist atrocities (such as the Emanuel 9 in Charleston just five years ago last month), ever since George Floyd’s killing, the nation has been wracked by a renewed debate regarding what to do with the statues placed in venues of public honor to commemorate the leaders and soldiers of the Confederate States of America. With every incident, the public consensus seems more clear that they must be removed from their present locations, either to be transferred to museums, where their historical significance can be placed in proper context, or destroyed altogether.
For what it is worth, I have come to the conclusion that this growing consensus is correct (I favor the museum option). I write these words as a son of the South (if you’ll allow that of my youth in southern Maryland). Those who fought for the Confederacy did so for one chief, undeniable purpose: to preserve or even to extend the practice of chattel slavery of other human beings, despite the foundational proposition that “all men are created equal.” This “peculiar institution” was a contradiction of our expressed values. But it was always more than that. It was a moral abomination. (For the record, Old Testament scholars do not toss about the term “abomination” lightly.)
I believe this to be true even of statues commemorating an individual who remains, by many accounts, a man of noble character (albeit a slaveholder himself): Robert E. Lee. Certainly, by comparison with some of his counterparts on the Union side (Grant and Sherman come to mind), he excels as a man. But he chose to decline President Lincoln’s offer to command the Grand Army of the Republic and to lead the army defending slavery instead. For that decision, his statues, too, must go.
Still, as in most any historical debate, there have been some excesses even on what I consider the side with the better argument. One is the repeated charge that those fighting for the South were “traitors” (see, for example, the New York Times editorial of 6/19/2020 at https://www.nytimes.com/search?query=statues%2C+traitors). The term is simply anachronistic: one of the subsidiary issues of the war was to determine whether or not a state could opt out of the Union after having opted in. It was, in fact, states in New England that had earlier raised this issue (although they had not gone to war over it). The war resolved the question in the negative. But at the time of the war the issue was in dispute, as Lincoln’s own 1865 Second Inaugural (posted earlier today) suggests (although he had no doubts himself). As many historians have noted, it was only the Civil War (not the “War Between the States,” pace one of my eighth-grade teachers) that changed our grammar from “the United States are” to “the United States is.”
Secondly, one of ironic upsides that has emerged from the murder in Minneapolis and the protests that have followed is the recognition that American racism is not a problem distinctive to the South. Yes, it was the South that featured de jure segregation, Jim Crow, and poll taxes. But what of the North? There’s the de facto segregation of redlining and similar boundary-drawing practices. I am old enough to remember the riots in the South—South Boston, that is—over court-ordered busing in the late 1960s. I have seen more than enough Confederate battle flags in the North—north Michigan, that is. I have never forgotten the day that an African-American young woman in one of my theology classes at Valparaiso University (in northwest Indiana) listed off for the class the nearby towns where she would never be caught alone, especially after dark.
So, we’ve all (but particularly my fellow Caucasians) got plenty to listen to and learn, plenty to repent of, and plenty to change, if we’re to have any hope of forming a “beloved community” in keeping with the expressed values of our country.
But for now, the statues have to go. And those of us who are lifelong, ardent fans of the Washington Redskins have additional reckoning to do. But that’s a subject for another post.