LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Legislators, history has its eyes on you

Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, grew up in that great city, each day passing monuments dedicated to heroes of the Confederacy —Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard.

But in the days following June 17, 2015, he began seeing them anew.

That was the day a young white man, unhinged by hate, gunned down nine black South Carolina churchgoers as they gathered in prayer.

Landrieu, who is white, began to wonder: How would these statues appear through the eyes of an African-American girl or boy? Why are men who defended slavery so highly exalted?

He researched the history of the statues. They were put up, long after the war, to celebrate the myth of the “Lost Cause.” They were put up to send a message: The war may have ended the Confederacy, but not the reign of white supremacists.

He set about having them removed, a long political battle that meant loss of friends and threats of violence. Landrieu tells the story in a new book, “In the Shadow of Statues.”

What Landrieu did for New Orleans — force a reckoning with the truth — Bryan Stevenson intends for the entire country.

Stevenson, a Milton native who graduated from Cape Henlopen High School and Harvard Law School, founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in 1989. He serves as its executive director.

On April 26, EJI will launch its most ambitious project, the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama.

The museum tells the story of slavery and its legacy, including the racial terrorism that resulted in the lynching — murder made public spectacle — of some 4,000 African-Americans.

That legacy, continuing through Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration, has been largely ignored by Americans.

“If you go to Germany,” Stevenson says, “you’ll see a nation that has confronted the legacy of the Holocaust. In this country we do the opposite.”

And without that reckoning with the truth there can be no reconciliation.

We have our own truth to face here in Sussex County.

Georgetown is home to the Marvel Carriage Museum, a private museum with a wonderful collection of antique carriages and all sorts of Americana. Operated by the Georgetown Historical Society, it’s partially funded by a state grant.

In 2007, this property became the site for a Confederate memorial, an obelisk that lists Confederate soldiers from Delaware and others who aided the Southern cause.

The memorial is flanked by a Delaware state flag and a Confederate flag. It was placed there in accordance with an agreement between the Georgetown Historical Society (GHS) and the Delaware Grays, a branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

In the past, the Progressive Democrats of Sussex County (PDSC) have called for ending state funding for the museum, saying legislators should refrain from supporting any organization “that affirms racism.”

This spring, in conjunction with the opening of the Legacy Museum, we are renewing that call.

Let’s be clear. The PDSC is not questioning the right of the GHS to allow the obelisk and Confederate flag on their property or the right of the Delaware Grays to have a memorial.

We are saying that state funds should not be involved.

Here’s why:

Let’s say a business, at the request of the Delaware Grays, allows a Confederate flag and memorial on their property.

The business owners do not pay for or maintain the memorial. They only provide space. They would have every right to do so.

But we would have the right not to patronize that business.

Not so with the museum.

We may decide not to go the Marvel Carriage Museum, but our tax dollars do. They go to an organization that implicitly supports white supremacy.

If that charge seems unfair, tell us what conclusion you would draw about the owners of a business that allowed a Confederate memorial on their property. Would you expect them to welcome African-Americans?

Sen. Brian Pettyjohn of Georgetown, one of the memorial’s chief defenders, hinted at the significance of the Confederate monument with a curious defense.

In an Aug. 17, 2017 letter to the editor, he said, “This monument is located in the back corner of the museum outside the center of town. It is not displayed prominently for all to see as they are driving into and out of town.”

But if there’s nothing wrong with the memorial, why the concern about its location? Is there something embarrassing about it?

The answer is “Yes,” and what is wrong is contained in the Salute to the Confederate Flag, which appears on the Confederate Grays’ website: “I salute the Confederate Flag with affection, reverence and undying devotion to the Cause for which it stands.”

That cause was slavery. That cause is white supremacy. That’s the truth Delaware legislators need to learn from Mayor Landrieu and our own native son Bryan Stevenson.

  1. Don Flood
    Civil Rights Team Member,
    Progressive Democrats of Sussex County
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