Reflections on Charlottesville, Virginia
This is not about statues, but about the frightening resurrection of white supremacy movements that many had thought were obsolete and yesterday’s news. So let’s first discuss the issues, then let’s discuss the symbols.
There is a move afoot to suppress minority voting, to reduce spending on public education, Medicaid, and housing assistance. There is a move to take away health coverage, to deny access to reproductive rights, to restrict legal immigration, to deport hard working illegal immigrants, to gerrymander the nation’s elections and to involve our nation in another war in Asia. There is a move to empower dictators from Russia to the Philippines, to unsettle old European allies, to restrict free trade, to further heighten tensions in the tinderbox of the Middle East. There is a move to give huge tax breaks to the wealthy, to re-poison our air and water and degrade our nation’s and the world’s environment. There are real and increasing dangers of nuclear war in Korea and the Middle East occurring under the President’s watch.
On all of these issues, President Trump has aligned his policies with the radical far right of his Republican party. During the campaign, he sent out repeated signals to the alt right, to the white supremacists and white nationalists, that he was their man. And they responded and voted for him in surprising numbers that contributed to his victory. He not only agrees with them but gave a huge bullhorn to their views on immigration, Mexicans and Muslims; he was their long time champion on their birther set of lies. Once elected, he brought Steve Bannon, Steven Miller, Sebastian Gorka, Kris Kobach and other appointees with alt-right connections into key positions in the White House and Executive Branch.
Last weekend the KKK, white supremacists and the neo-Nazis from all over the country, emboldened by President Trump’s victory, marched with torches through the University of Virginia campus chanting anti-Semitic slogans, faced off with local clergy downtown, killed a young woman and injured many others. They brought guns and many other weapons into a small college town, its historic university and its town square. They sought to intimidate congregants at a nearby synagogue and nearby residents of the local black community. Please look at those youthful, well fed faces marching with their torches and tell me this does not remind you of the Hitler youth.
President Trump showed no semblance of moral leadership in responding to this situation and instead exhibited his profound sympathy for the nice people participating the neo-Nazi and KKK led march and rally. For his recent performance, he has been praised by their leaders, Richard Spencer and David Duke, and rebuked by his Republican colleagues John McCain, John Kasich, Bob Corker and Jeff Flake. Moral leadership matters; words from America’s President matter; it sends messages throughout the country and around the world. We are a far poorer country when our moral leadership falters.
Let’s move from today’s reality to symbols from the past.
Some of the defining moments of our nation’s history are the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression and the Second World War; we have been blessed by great Presidents, such as Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt who will be long remembered for their leadership in these times of crisis. Some of their successors did not rise to the same lofty heights, but few have sunk so rapidly and so low as President Trump. But whoever is President, we need that individual to succeed or step aside for the sake of our nation and its citizens.
We should remember how divided our nation was in facing these crises. At the time of the American Revolution, we were sharply divided between Revolutionaries and Loyalists, and, as we know from the play, Hamilton, some just sat on the fence and waited to see which way the wind blew. Our founding fathers are revered; the Loyalists forgotten. Likewise, the Civil War divided those dedicated to slavery and willing to resort to armed violence from those seeking to preserve the Union and willing to fight for it; once again many sat on the fence as the nation was engulfed in the worst war ever on the US homeland. On the eve of the Second World War, we were not united nor prepared at all, the America First contingent encompassed both ardent isolationists and Hitler sympathizers; many in the business community thought President Roosevelt a communist. There is nothing wrong with healthy debate before momentous decisions; there is something absolutely toxic about lies and bully tactics.
My great grandfather fought and great uncle died fighting for the Union in the Civil War. They are still revered and remembered in our family, and no, we don’t have any statues of them. Their roles still resonate and are a source of pride 150 years later within my family.
The statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis that dot the South are about far more than commemorating the Civil War’s too many dead. They were erected after the end of Reconstruction to send a message of Southern white supremacy to their ex-slaves. They were accompanied by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the Jim Crow laws and the American version of apartheid that prevailed for close to 100 years ‘til the Civil Rights era of the 1950’s and 60’s. They sent messages of white dominion over blacks that still resonate in their communities today. If not, where are the local statues of Ulysses Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and Abraham Lincoln; I just do not recall seeing them adorning the beautiful landscape in my travels throughout the South.
In Tennessee, there are many statues to General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a native son, an outstanding Confederate General and an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. What is their intended message to the citizens of the very same state where Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white racist over 100 years later? Why are there not comparable statues to Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas who fought against slavery and to free their people/our people?
These statues were not erected as messages of racial reconciliation; these statues were not meant to honor the United States. They commemorate the Confederacy and the Confederate States of America and the Confederate leaders who were in fact traitors to our nation. The Civil War was not about “state’s rights”; it was about slavery -- maintaining and extending it. The North did not attack the South; the nation duly elected Abraham Lincoln President, and some in the South promptly went to war, starting with the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. In other countries, these gentlemen who had taken up arms against their country would have been shot or hanged after the insurrection, but Abraham Lincoln believed in and fostered reconciliation, yet paid the price with his life.
What should we do about the statues now? Why not pair them and explain them? One of Robert E. Lee paired with one of Ulysses Grant with placards that explain their respective roles during the Civil War. Same with Stonewall Jackson and William Tecumseh Sherman. Let’s get lots of statues of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas up with placards explaining their roles. Same with Martin Luther King and John Lewis and Rosa Parks and their roles 100 years later. Let’s tell the real history of this conflict and our nation's original sin to our children and grandchildren, not some sanitized “Gone with the Wind” version. A good solid civic education will inoculate many voters and citizens, not all, from the steady stream of lies and untruths that are emanating from our TV screens and our current President.
Prepared by: Lucien Wulsin