LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Glorification of the ‘repugnant’ should be not be OK

I very much appreciate Larry Koch’s letter published on Aug. 25 regarding the controversy about the removal of monuments to the Confederacy (“Tearing down monuments sets ‘dangerous precedent’”). His description of Robert E. Lee’s efforts after the Civil War to temper the behavior of his fellow Southerners and his firm opposition to all actions which would in any way glorify the Confederacy is valuable and should be common knowledge.

Unfortunately, also not well known are the honorable behaviors of Newton Knight and George Thomas, among the many others who should be awarded such accolades. One obvious reason for this gap in our knowledge lies with the failure of some of our educators, which was Mr. Koch’s profession. Robert E. Lee clearly understood and accepted the consequences of his choice and his behavior serves as a model for us today.

I strongly agree that we must own and learn from our history but we cannot do that unless we squarely face our history for what it is rather than idealizing it or trivializing any discussion of it as a “varied and even unpopular opinion”.

Removing these statues, flags, etc., does not “air-brush” our history because they themselves paint a false face on a horrific and shameful event in our past — a war precipitated by the Southern states to destroy the United States of America to preserve the South’s perceived right to enslave other human beings.

The removal of such symbols does not “tamper with” history. The removal is neither the equivalent of “shouting down speakers that we disagree with” nor does it represent a slippery slope to burning books, censoring thought or destruction of such tributes to Washington or Jefferson. These and all such statements are not just simplistic but are patently absurd. Such phrases provide an all too convenient excuse to ignore the historical fact that the bursts of presentations of these monuments came during specific time periods fraught with bitter arguments regarding the rights of the former slaves and their descendants. Simply put, this is not a free speech issue; the only issue here is the reaction to the South having lost The Civil War.

The flags, statues and/or monuments in question were not installed shortly after that war as many assume but really began to appear in significant numbers with the start of the Jim Crow laws:

1865—1877: Officially recognized as the Reconstruction Era.

1870: — Robert E. Lee dies.

1877—1895: Reconstruction Era ends. Disenfranchisement of blacks begins in earnest with white Southern state legislatures enacting “Jim Crow” laws. (Jim Crow was a buffoonish minstrel [blackface] character created in the 1830s. The name became a short-hand derogatory term in “polite society” and thus fits the laws enacted.) Hiding under the deceptive legalese term “separate but equal”, these laws were designed to strangle every aspect of black lives from employment and education down to access to public drinking fountains. Numerous displays honoring the Confederacy began to appear throughout the South.

1896-1954: Using the 1896 US Supreme Court ruling (Plessy v. Ferguson) that laws requiring regulated segregation are constitutional as their justification, Southern whites waged a successful campaign to terrorize blacks. The KKK re-emerged triumphant with burning crosses and lynching as common occurrences. Poll taxes and other tricks decimated black voting rights. More Confederate symbols were erected in large numbers.

1954: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate public schools for black and white students is unconstitutional (Brown v. Board of Education). As a result, by right, racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, thus setting a model for future litigations on similar issues.

1955-1970: An intense fight for civil rights began. Southern whites resisted change with organized actions of brutal violence by law enforcement and citizens alike. I’m sure I’m not alone in remembering nightmares from having seen some of this on television news as a youngster. The most recognizable of the Confederate battle flags appeared, even in some state capitols; more statues, memorials, etc., were installed as intimidating reminders of the power of white Southern “heritage”.

Perhaps Mr. Koch, along with many others, has forgotten that elected governing bodies in various cities, not mobs, voted to remove these statues and monuments. Some chose the middle of the night to avoid the gathering of groups (KKK, Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, etc.) with brutal records of violence and death. Neither vandalism nor violence should be connected to this process.

According to the chants, banners, signs, etc., of the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, it was not about the removal of the Robert E Lee statue; it was about white supremacy.

We all need to go beyond the immediate optics of this issue, recognize the racism that lurks beneath the surface of our society and squarely face the terrible Civil War that seems to haunt us. The very fact that, in retelling the story of a former slave’s going ahead of a white man in church, his action still described as “brazen” speaks volumes. Robert E. Lee saw it for what it was — courageous.

It’s not enough to “practice what we preach”. We must be sure that what we are preaching is honorable, true and accurate. The cause for the Civil War was not noble then and isn’t noble now. The lessons learned from World War II against any display or support for the Nazi movement are now codified in German law: we cannot glorify or silently allow glorification of that (or any) cause which is repugnant. The question of today is: if we do, what does that say about us?

Janis T. Gaddis

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