There’s violence and debate in America today, incidentally around Confederate War memorials. Of course, these memorials were just the trigger for a much deeper and more complex racial hatred, but the removal of these memorials was the catalyst. I was surprised to learn that there are over 700 such memorials in America, some erected as recently as 2010.
So, to clarify, we’re talking about memorials glorifying the Confederate soldiers from the Civil war, which ended in 1865 — 152 years ago. And (spoiler alert) the Confederate side LOST, badly. Which turned out to be a great thing for America, preserving the union and paving the slippery uphill slope toward racial equality. (Clearly, we’re not there yet.)
Now, I’m a Southerner, born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, which as you may recall was literally burned to the ground by General Sherman. The Civil War was fought in the South below the Mason-Dixon line; I and my friends could find treasures in our backyards such as mini-balls or belt buckles or even a cannon ball–a special treat sure to liven up any show-and-tell in grade school.
Over 600,000 soldiers perished in the Civil War — that’s ten times more Americans than were killed in the Vietnam war. Whole branches of families were wiped out. As a Southerner who was raised to cherish the symbols of our Southern heritage (including the Confederate flag, Robert E. Lee, the daughters of the Confederacy, and anything related to the many civil war battles fought, literally, in our backyards), I have a vague understanding of the outrage over the removal of these memorials. And I have taken the time to analyze my vague understanding. (I hesitate to write anything about racism because I really don’t know what I’m saying. But I believe it is time to talk about racism in whatever terms we can manage.)
If we think the loss of life of 600,000 soldiers is devastating, compare that to the cruelty of 400 years of slavery in our country. There were millions of slaves, an estimated 12.5 million in those 400 years from 1525 – 1865. Slave owners were not known to be kind, and the humiliation and toil heaped on many generations of slaves cannot be fully understood today, especially by white people like me. Maybe you saw “Roots.” Maybe you saw “12 Years a Slave.” Maybe you’ve read some book that detailed the daily fear, turmoil, and hardship of being a slave on a Southern plantation. But there is no way a white person can understand or even empathize with the generational trauma and rage that is the product of American slavery. The least we white folks can do is to try to understand the source of our own racism, to respect people of color who experience the effects of racism, and to speak out against it when we find it.
Yes, the South lost many of its brave, misguided sons in that war. Yes, many Southerners are still angry at the loss of life and the humiliation of losing such a war. It smarts, still. I get it.
But dear me, the war is OVER. America of today is greatly enriched by the presence of African Americans in all walks of life. And if you think it’s hard for Southerners to get over such a loss, imagine how hard it is for African Americans to get over 400 years of slavery and denigration at the hands of white people. You think you have historical angst? Think again.
At the risk of sounding condescending, let me say that I have black friends today and have throughout my life. My heroes are Congressman John Lewis, Mayor Maynard Jackson, President Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr. For some reason, I rarely think of these men as African Americans. But when I do, when I try to put myself into their shoes for just a second, I can almost feel how it feels to them to see a memorial to the cause to uphold slavery in the South. It’s not right. But honestly, until recently, I never thought about those statues.
On the side of Stone Mountain in Atlanta is a carving of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson – Confederate heroes. It stretches 1.5 acres across the granite face of Stone Mountain. I remember being so proud when the carving was finally completed in 1972 after 57 years of work. A favorite summer outing for Atlantans is to gather on the great lawn in front of the carving in the evening to watch an elaborate laser show of lights that plays across the side of Stone Mountain after dark. Picnics, children playing, first dates – every Atlantan has a memory of Stone Mountain and the carving. This is a Confederate Memorial so revered that the Constitution of the State of Georgia prohibits it from being altered in any way.
Should it stay? Or should it, like so many other Civil War memorials, go?
I don’t see any reason to have memorials to men who were traitors to the United States of America. They fought against this country and they fought to preserve a practice that was so wrong, it is now illegal in every country in the world. And they lost, thank god.
Tear them all down. Every last one.