LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Tearing down monuments sets ‘dangerous precedents’

I write as someone who participated in a picket line against segregation while still a teen in the 50s, and was spat upon for my efforts. I am also proud to have been the vice president of my college’s civil rights club. I point out these bona-fides, because we live in troubling times, where contrary opinions are often dismissed based on pre-conceived political mindsets.

I personally share the views of my fellow Mainer, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain that the Confederate cause was inherently and irredeemably evil, but I know that people are more complicated, and should not be reduced to caricatures.

Robert E. Lee was not a caricature. He opposed secession and was increasingly ambivalent about slavery. In the end it was a question of sectional loyalty, and when the war ended, Lee counseled support for reunification, acceptance of the new status quo and opposition to violence.

Perhaps one illustration might help. In St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, it was a longstanding church tradition that whites came up first for communion, followed by black congregants. On a Sunday after the war, a newly liberated slave brazenly came up first before any whites. It was a tense and dangerous situation, relieved when Robert E. Lee stood up, walked to the front and got down on his knees next to his fellow Christian, and citizen.

This is just one example, of how Lee, who was in bad health, dedicated the rest of his life to the acceptance of the outcome of the war. He also adamantly opposed those who glorified the Confederacy, and refused to allow Confederate symbols, uniforms or flags at his funeral.

And Lee was not the only one who fought for the South and then made his peace with what Lincoln called the “new birth of freedom.” Do those who ripped down the statue of P. G. T. Beauregard know that after the war he supported civil rights and voting rights for the freed slaves? This was at a time that many in the North and South didn’t share his view?

How about former Southern soldier named Newton Knight, who deserted and led a revolt (“The Republic of Jones”) against the Confederacy, and led an integrated army in that effort? Or that Confederate Gens. Mosby and Longstreet supported the re-election of U.S. Grant, the Reconstruction president who sent regular troops to fight the Klan?

In the face of most of their neighbors, many of whom were still loyal to the “Lost Cause,” such stands were not popular, but history is about real people. All who wore blue were not always all good, and those who wore gray were not always all bad. Of course there were other Confederate statues put up for people who doubtless were scoundrels, and I for one would support, in those cases, the erection of a balanced and revealing historical marker near them- but I remain opposed to monument removal.

Tearing down statues in the middle of the night is repugnant. It is the equivalent of air-brushing out people who were once honored, or shouting down speakers that we disagree with. Those who want to destructively correct our historical patrimony, perhaps unwittingly and with the best of intentions, may very well in the end burn books and censor thought.

Tearing down public monuments is also a dangerous precedent. It is tampering with our history. I am unimpressed by the argument that these statues “do not reflect our current values.” I love an America and Americans that know “our values” demonstrate that we are reflective and tolerant, we accept varied and even unpopular opinions, and are committed to free speech.

Our problem is not that we have too many monuments. Additional monuments are needed. I support the erection of one in honor of Gen. George Thomas, a Virginian who ably campaigned for the Union and later fought the Klan. I would also honor with a monument the first Blacks in Congress, Sen. Hiram Revels of Mississippi and Rep. Joseph Rainey of South Carolina. How many know these great people?

Again, our nation is constantly evolving, often for the better. Not all of our past is good; but we need to own it and learn from it. Study America’s history, and build a better future. We are a work in progress, and the wisdom of our institutions calls for change decided by the people and their legislature, not by mobs. Let us practice what we preach.

Larry Koch, Ed.D.

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