(Picture from newspaper record of the Cornerstone Speech, by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens.)
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” (Maya Angelou)
“Slavery’s twin legacies to the present are the social and economic inferiority it conferred upon blacks and the cultural racism it instilled in whites. Both continue to haunt our society. Therefore, treating slavery’s enduring legacy is necessarily controversial. Unlike slavery, racism in not over yet.“ (James W. Loewen)
“History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.” (Maya Angelou)
People are confused about the removal of these statues. Understandable.
Not only has our collective education about these monuments been woefully incomplete, but also deliberately deceptive. “More Americans have learned the story of the South during the years of the Civil War and Reconstruction from Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” than from all of the learned volumes of this period. (Warren Beck & Myles Clowers)
We remember this…
We weren’t taught this.
Two female protesters are shown holding signs marching for civil rights and protesting a play depicting ‘Gone With The Wind,’ March 9, 1940.
Anti Racist Protest Against The Movie Gone With The Wind At Chicago In Usa On January 1St 1940
Today’s history textbooks stick closely in spirit to the the 1925 American Legion recommendations for the ideal textbook which “must inspire the children with patriotism…must be careful to tell the truth optimistically…must dwell on failure only for its value as a moral lesson, must speak chiefly of success…must give each State and Section full space and value for the achievements of each.” (Public Opinion and the Teaching of History in the United States (p. 329-30) – 1926)
These imperatives create perfect conditions to slowly and painstakingly alter our perception of history, of truth itself, using cultural racism to its full advantage. First came the successful campaign to muddle the true cause of the war. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group dedicated “…to teaching the next generation “a proper respect for and pride in the glorious war history”, were very influential with textbook publishers, working to replace slavery with “states rights” as the main driver behind secession and presenting the Union and Confederate sympathizers as equally idealistic. In the textbook “The American Way”, “The North fought to hold the Union together while the Southern State fought for the preservation of their right and freedom to decide for themselves.”
By the 1920’s, a Union veterans’ organization complained that American history textbooks were presenting the Civil War with “no suggestion” that the Union cause was right.
Then came sanitizing slavery itself…
“In 1959 my high school textbook presented slavery as not such a bad thing. If bondage was a burden for African Americans, well, slaves were a burden on Ole Massa and Ole Mis, too. Beside, slaves were reasonably happy and well fed. Such argument contitute the “magnolia myth” according to which slavery was a social structure of harmony and grace that did no real harm to anyone, white or black. A famous 1950’s textbook by Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commage actually said, “As for (the black person), whose wrongs moved the abolitionists to wrath and tears, there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its “peculiar institution”.” (James W. Loewen “Lies My Teacher Told Me”)
But won’t taking monuments down remove an opportunity to learn about our history?
So how much actual history can be gleaned from these pieces of bronze and granite? Let’s start in Wisconsin, because there’s actually a Confederate monument there. (Not for long though…) One obvious historical lesson…those ladies from the United Daughters of the Confederacy were pretty ballsy. In a state that provided 91,000 soldiers to the Union army, of which 12,000 died, the plaque’s inscription honors the 140 Confederate soldiers who died in Camp Randall as “unsung heroes“.
(Monument to Confederate soldiers in Wisconsin.)
More importantly than eulogizing fallen soldiers, can someone learn the true motivations behind the Civil War from these monuments?
Let’s look at the statue and attached inscriptions honoring Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, the man who gave us the infamous “Cornerstone” speech”. (full text)
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, 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…”
There’s no mention of his most famous speech, nor analysis of its enduring gift to racism. We are instead left to wonder as to the limits of his “unwearying charity”.
Some other very important information was left off the engravings and plaques… when and why these monuments were installed in the first place.
“Confederate statues were built in waves that corresponded to the creation of the “Solid South” and backlashes against black political power. The Nash County monument was part of the beginning of the second wave, built two years after the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan and during a period of intensifying race riots and lynchings nationwide. As Jim Crow sub-citizens, black folks could not vote to stop the onslaught of the granite memorials, and they faced cross-burnings and lynchings for daring to speak out against the projects.” (atlantic)
Our school texts now are more accurate as to the true living conditions of slaves, and more effective than any monuments in conveying the history of the south and of the nation at large, from the pre-war era, through its aftermath – the Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, astoundingly racist Supreme Court decisions and the repeated horrific abuses of black Americans. Film and TV depictions, such as “Roots”, have helped to erase some of the “contented slave” fiction of earlier texts.
However, the spell of the “Lost Cause” is still alive and well.
Which make possible our unblinking acceptance of things like Dolly Parton’s “Dixie Stampede“, where the South and the North trade off winning in a good-natured competition. No mention of slavery here either.
It’s time to stop pretending that these statues are benign history lessons.
It’s time to stop dismissing the significance of their positions high up on pedestals, the treatment reserved for true heroes.
(A statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, unveiled in 1907, stands in the middle of Monument Avenue August 23, 2017 in Richmond, Virginia.)
It’s time to stop brushing aside the objections of people who’ve seen these statues appear in concert with waves of brutal physical and economic oppression.
It’s time to wake up and open our eyes.
So here’s a real history lesson. One that many of us were lucky enough to miss as kids. One that our parents and our grandparents might have missed also. Or even might have contributed a portion of misery to.
If you haven’t seen this video, it is the most powerful lesson we’ve ever seen about why these statues need to be removed.
Actions regarding Racism:
Operation Make Lemonade: Transforming white supremacist rallies into anti-racist fundraisers (googledoc)
Find your hidden biases (harvard.edu)
Adopt-a-Nazi (not really) for the SPLC (gofundme)
Readings about the Statues/ Related issues:
“Lies My Teacher Told Me – Everything your American History textbook got wrong” by James W. Loewen
How New York City became the capital of the Jim Crow North
Watch: Was the Civil War about Slavery? (pragerU)
Racial injustice is not a regional sickness. It’s a national cancer. (wapo)
Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy (splc)
19 Racist US Supreme Court Rulings
An open letter from the great-great-grandsons of Stonewall Jackson. (slate)
Actually, Robert E. Lee was against erecting Confederate memorials (CNN)
Robert E. Lee’s Descendant On Confederate Statues (npr)
Growing up in the shadow of the Confederacy (atlantic)
Lynching in America (eji.org)
Fighting white supremacy means owning up to American history (thenation)
Historical amnesia about slavery is a tool of white supremacy. (thenation)
In some states, it’s illegal to take down monuments or change street names honoring the Confederacy (LAtimes)
Lee’s Reputation can’t be redeemed (atlantic)
Heritage: Robert E. Lee and the Persistence of Racism (LAProgressive)
Of Historical Statues and Monuments. “For a better future, I’d like to see fewer statues to military men and sports heroes and the like, and more to visionaries who sought a better way for us as a people.” (LAProgressive)
Confederate statues removed across southern US states – in pictures. (guardian)
How you can identify a white nationalist (huffpost)
How America spreads the disease that is racism by not confronting racist family member and friends (medium)
Weekly Reading list:
Amy Siskind’s Week 40 – Experts in authoritarianism advise to keep a list of things subtly changing around you. (medium)
Updated: Vanessa Otero has released the second edition of her now-famous media bias graphic. In this article, which includes the graphic, she explains her analysis and helps us all think about the news media more carefully.
The monuments Trump Doesn’t Support. (slate)
Indivisible – The birth of a resistance movement. (billmoyers)