By Shiam Kannan
Recently, Confederate monuments in the South have been generating considerable controversy, with protesters and counter-protesters clashing at the sites of monuments that have been scheduled for removal. Most notably, there was a violent showdown between white nationalists and counter-protesters surrounding the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, 2017. Many have declared these monuments to be nothing more than glorifications of a dark past, odes to a bygone era of slavery and racism. However, there is much more behind the history of the Confederacy than just slavery, and its legacy still remains a source of regional pride for many Southerners.
In Memphis, Tennessee, there have been proposals to remove statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general, and protesters have even attempted to exhume his grave. In Richmond, Virginia, there have been numerous cases of vandalism of Confederate statues. Throughout the country, there is a push to purge Confederate history from the public sphere, by bringing down Confederate statues, and renaming schools dubbed after famous Confederates. In light of this recent push, one has to wonder: what will this really accomplish? Will the suffering of Black slaves 150 years ago suddenly disappear? No. Will the removal of Confederate symbols change history? No. The only goal that the expulsion of Confederate symbols will accomplish is that it will humiliate many Southerners, to whom the Confederacy is a symbol of pride. It will be a stab in the eye to many Southerners whose ancestors fought in the Civil War, tantamount to the defacing of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington. It will antagonize millions of southerners, many of them Black, by forcing them to accept that their heritage is nothing but shameful.
Many opponents of Confederate public expression will resort to a common, widespread claim: that the Confederacy seceded to protect slavery, and therefore all Confederate symbols are inherently racist. History, on the other hand, paints an entirely different picture — the Confederacy was more concerned with their independence than they were with the fate of slavery. Perhaps the most blatant example of this would be the Confederacy’s response to a proposed Constitutional amendment known as the Corwin Amendment. This amendment, if enacted, would have permanently protected the institution of slavery throughout the United States, and was passed by both houses of Congress in an attempt to prevent the Southern states from seceding. The Confederacy seceded nevertheless, rather choosing to fight for independence and sovereignty from what they saw as a tyrannical northern government. The South’s fight was one for self-determination and self-government, not one for slavery. To portray the Confederacy as a group of racist bigots is not only an injustice to history, but an injustice to the millions of Southerners who celebrate their heritage and their ancestors with pride and admiration.
Many who oppose the display of Confederate statues will be quick to point out the moral shortcomings of many Confederate leaders, that they owned slaves, that they espoused racist beliefs, or spout other similar accusations. However, these statues can just as well stand for the virtues of these men. For example, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who is vilified for creating the Ku Klux Klan (which, surprisingly, was not a racist organization at first, but rather a volunteer police force), was a strong advocate of equality for African Americans after the Civil War, working tirelessly to promote Black employment in the South during Reconstruction. Furthermore, he spent his final years advocating for the advancement of African Americans. Why must we only see one side of the story? Why can’t the statues of Forrest not only represent that he owned slaves and founded the Ku Klux Klan, but also represent that he dedicated the last years of his life to helping African Americans improve their condition in the South? That he sought to promote harmony between Whites and Blacks in his home state of Tennessee? Why can’t his statues embody his words to a Black audience in 1875: “I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going?” We should allow these statues to tell the entire truth on these historical figures, not just what revisionists want us to hear.
We have much to learn from both the positive and negative aspects of our history. By attempting to censor our history in the name of “political correctness,” we are setting a dangerous precedent that it is acceptable to remove symbols and speech we do not necessarily agree with. Furthermore, when we remove the reminders and symbols of history from our society, we also remove the lessons that these symbols embody. And as the adage goes, “If we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we are doomed to repeat them.”
To this day, Confederate symbols are interpreted differently by different people. In the eyes of Southerners, they are emblems of regional pride, uniting the people of the South under a common history, heritage, and culture. Confederate monuments honor those that fought and gave their lives for their homeland, defending it from Northern aggression. The controversy surrounding Confederate symbolism should not warrant censorship, but rather discussion. Let us not violently clamor to tear down these reminders of our history. Rather, let us sit down with those that we disagree with, and converse with them why we see these symbols differently. Most importantly, we must learn from history, and not divide ourselves due to a lack of understanding and compromise, lest we be headed for another Civil War.