Taking down the Confederacy is more than a symbolic act
The City of New Orleans has scheduled the removal of 4 Confederate statues this week. As someone who grew up in the south, I applaud this effort to rid the Southern landscape of celebratory markers of a dark past that continues to haunt Black and white Americans. This has been a long time coming.
Brian Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative tells a story in his Ted Talk (at 10:19) about a visit to Germany, where he was giving lectures about the death penalty. He spoke with a scholar who told him that in Germany that they can never have the death penalty with their history of Nazism.
Stevenson notes that the Germans have taken full stock of their history, considering how their past might bear on the present, on institutions that impact all German citizens and the potential for the discrimination that defined their past to rear its head once again.
When the South celebrates Confederate history, it rewrites the Confederate cause as noble, as “states rights,” and freedom from government overreach instead of what it really was: an oppressive racial state built on the backs of African slaves and the poverty of many.
There is nothing worth celebrating about men who fought the union of the United States so that Black people could remain in bondage.
Growing up in the South, I often heard Confederate apologists utter such nonsense as, “It’s not hate, it’s heritage,” or the utterly irrelevant phrase, “My family didn’t own any slaves.”
Unfortunately for these folks, it is impossible to separate the symbols and sentiment of the Confederacy from its true past. The Confederate Constitution demonstrates the commitment the Confederacy had to slavery, specifically denying anyone’s ability to prevent slave ownership in Article 1, Section 9:
“(4) No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”
This bold-faced declaration of the Confederate government cannot be further from modern claims that the Civil War was over “states rights, not slavery.” This is why maintaining Confederate memorials divides American history into fact and fiction until those who ascribe to the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy are unable to recognize the facts of this time period as a cruel and unjustifiable caste system that determined human worth by proximity to whiteness and wealth.
The Confederate memorials where I grew up serve as a site of contention, a further reminder of the white supremacy that pervades the southern landscape–morphing from slavery, to segregation, to housing discrimination, to low quality schools for African American students, and into a precarious social safety net for the poor.
Symbols are indicative of substance. It is no wonder that just recently in Georgia, a state representative decided a good use of his time would be to revive Confederate Memorial Day. Instead of solving actual problems in the state, the lawmaker felt that the entire state should have a day to celebrate the Confederacy.
Confederate memorials remind Southerners that whiteness is what matters most–even more than being American. Confederate celebrations divide the calendar into “our holidays and theirs.” I will never forget the ongoing fight against the Confederate memorials in my home town, where a monument just in front of the county court house reads, “To our Confederate soldiers, 1861-1865. No nation rose so pure and white. None ever fell so spotless.”
Whatever lies are told to maintain Confederate memorials, celebrations of Confederate pasts serve to divide Americans and gloss over the continued legacy of anti-Black discrimination in the United States with false tales of bravery. The Confederacy deserves no memorials and its history needs no respect–it is past time for these archaic symbols to be removed from public display.
Photo Credits: Flickr