It seems this nation is not quite done with the Civil War.
In the last few years, the fate of Confederate monuments has moved center stage as those who seek to remove them scream racism at those who would see their ancestors’ statues unmolested.
The battle spilled into Georgia’s governor’s race and, unsurprisingly, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams don’t see eye to eye.
Kemp tells the MDJ he supports the existing state law that protects Confederate monuments on state property.
“I kind of take the Condoleezza Rice approach. I don’t think we can run from our history. We have to embrace it and learn from it and be a better state in the future because of it, and that’s the view that I have,” he said.
Abrams, meantime, is not a fan, telling the MDJ she neither likes nor supports Confederate monuments, referring to the one at Stone Mountain as “a reflection of an era of domestic terrorism.”
Abrams makes a distinction between what she says sprang up close to the war years and what came later. The later monuments “were put up by the Daughters of the Confederacy in order to harness the notion of the Lost Cause and to celebrate, but not only to celebrate, but also to terrify those communities of color that were growing up around Reconstruction and had sudden access to power and opportunity, and so we have to remember the history of most of those statuary. In fact, a lot of them came out of Marietta,” she told the MDJ editorial board earlier this month.
Battlefields, Marietta’s Confederate Cemetery, the Cyclorama in Atlanta — these, Abrams says, are acceptable. But the monuments that arrived post-Reconstruction through the early 1920s were erected “for the direct and explicit purpose of terrorizing black people,” she says.
But were they?
Professor William J. Cooper of Atlanta is a past president of the Southern Historical Association who taught history at Louisiana State University for 46 years and the author of many books on the South.
Abrams is wrong to argue that monuments were erected to terrorize African-Americans, Cooper says, unless one believes that commemorating Confederate soldiers is tantamount to terrorizing black people. He says it isn’t. Monuments weren’t needed to terrorize black folks at that time.
“The Jim Crow system of disfranchisement and racial segregation, they didn’t need monuments for that,” Cooper said. “They had Supreme Court decisions, national recognition of the South controlling blacks. They didn’t need monuments to have Jim Crow. It was in place. In places that didn’t have monuments, Jim Crow was in place. In places that had monuments, Jim Crow was in place.”
The truth is these monuments were erected to commemorate the Confederate soldiers who fought and died in a horrible war, and it’s too bad that a segment of noisemakers have decided to engage in cultural cleansing to have them removed.
Cooper believes one of the factors at play here is the use of presentism, a practice of using the present to judge the past to make one feel morally superior to those who came before. It’s an unfair practice and one Cooper rejects.
So where is this headed? President Trump raised that question last year, wondering what happens after Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are pulled down. Are Mount Vernon and Monticello to be torched because Washington and Jefferson were slave owners? Shall we dynamite Mount Rushmore before heading over to Egypt to level the Pyramids, brought to you courtesy of Pharaoh’s slaves?
The activists who claim racism are misguided, not for opposing racism, as any civilized person does, but for targeting monuments rather than the far more difficult challenge of changing the views of those who are racists. Tearing down statues of Confederate soldiers does nothing to change the minds of white supremacists and their ilk. Because racism is learned, it can be — happily — unlearned, and history is a tool that aids in doing this by serving as a cautionary tale of what not to do in addition to celebrating what we got right.
Army veteran Flynn Broady, a Democrat challenging U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, brought a soldier’s perspective to the debate when he told the MDJ the Stone Mountain memorial should be left alone. Whether Confederate or Union, Broady said, soldiers took up arms “because this was their land, this was their home, and they wanted to defend it. You know, that’s the only reason Robert E. Lee goes from being a general in the Union Army to being a general in the Confederate Army, because he wants to protect his home. It wasn’t to protect slavery. It was to protect his home. … Stone Mountain monument … is a monument of soldiers’ faces, Confederate soldiers, so I don’t see a reason to take it down …”
Destroying history does nothing but give leering pleasure to madmen like the Taliban, who dynamited the sixth-century Buddhas in central Afghanistan or the ISIS savages who blew up Palmyra.
In her interview with the MDJ, Abrams walked back her earlier claim of wanting to “remove” the Stone Mountain memorial when she was asked if it should be whisked off to a museum.
“I don’t think you put it in a museum, but I think you can provide additional context and I think we haven’t had the conversation sufficiently. That’s been part of our challenge that there has been a moratorium on this debate, and I believe we have to continue to have this conversation,” she said.
Listen carefully and there is an olive branch in that statement. Placing appropriate historical signage by such monuments is an entirely reasonable suggestion that only enhances the education process while at the same time appeasing the Abrams army. It also keeps monuments such as Stone Mountain from being “removed,” thereby satisfying the Kemp camp.
Could a peace pipe be in the future on this most divisive of topics? Hope springs eternal.