Statues & Monuments
Some (certainly not all) White people seem to be very confused as to why Black people are offended by many of the statues that are in their (meaning Black peoples’) own country.
Although I am White and, therefore, not qualified to speak firsthand on the Black American experience, my best guess is that things like Confederate statues are a slap in the face to Black people not only because of the horror of slavery, but also because most of these monuments were built during the time of Jim Crow in a clear attempt to champion White supremacy. Many of these statues were built for one reason and one reason only: To make sure that even though Black people were technically free, they should never, ever forget their place.
This is not my opinion, it’s a well-documented fact. Most Confederate monuments were built by organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy to romanticize the Lost Cause ridiculousness — a narrative that tries to rewrite history and say that the Civil War had nothing to do with the enslavement of Black people at all; rather it was about the moral and just goals of gaining economic prosperity, “state’s rights,” and preserving the “Southern way of life” (whatever that means).
These Confederate statues are nothing more than monuments to ignorance. And injustice. And hate. And cruelty.
To those who try to defend the Lost Cause nonsense you can just save it. There is zero doubt that the Confederacy was firmly built on the foundation of White supremacy, and that the reason the South fought the Civil War was to preserve slave labor.
One has to look no further than Confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephen’s Cornerstone Speech, given in 1861, for confirmation of this: “Our new government is founded upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the White man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
Without question, removing statues that glorify the Confederacy from shared, public places is essential to our goal of achieving racial justice and equality — but how far should the removal of statues and other monuments extend?
There have been seriously heated debates around this question lately but, to me, it’s not really that complicated. Not only were Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Hamilton Stephens, his vice president, and two of the most famous Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, fighting to keep human beings in bondage, they were traitors to the United States of America. Full stop.
The very thought of them being memorialized in a public place in this country is a joke. The U.S. Constitution is very clear: “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”
The same logic goes for the ten Army installations that are named after senior Confederate commanders, including Fort Bragg (named after General Braxton Bragg, who was a total disaster of a general, by the way), Fort Benning (named after Brigadier General Henry Benning, who led troops at Antietam and Gettysburg), and Fort Hood (named after John Bell Hood, who resigned from the Unites States Army to fight against it, and who was also a total disaster of a general).
As if fighting to keep people enslaved isn’t bad enough, THESE PEOPLE TOOK UP ARMS AGAINST THE UNITED STATES. I mean, really? These people betrayed our country, as well as the ancestors of our Black friends and neighbors. No. Just no.
These are no-brainers, but it gets a little more complicated beyond that.
Take men like Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, for example. Washington and Jefferson owned slaves — as twelve of our first eighteen presidents did – and Jackson and Roosevelt were seriously outspoken racists. In fact, Jackson (the U.S. president from 1829–1837) oversaw the dreadful Indian Removal Act of 1830 and instigated the Trail of Tears, which is one of the vilest episodes in American history.
Although Woodrow Wilson (the U.S. president from 1913–1921) championed the League of Nations, led the nation through World War I, and helped pass the 19th Amendment — which gave women the right to vote — his entire government was geared toward White supremacy. His administration segregated the federal work force and forced many Black Americans from positions where they had previously supervised White people. President Wilson is who started the process that led to ten military installations being named after Confederate officers. Sure, Theodore Roosevelt (the U.S. president from 1901–1909) put tons of land under federal protection, but he stole most of it from Native Americans.
And what about Civil War-era graveyards and battlefields? As I often do, I look to my hero Frederick Douglass for advice at times like these (my love for this man and his wisdom knows no bounds).
The Freedmen’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., also known as the Emancipation Memorial, is a monument that depicts Abraham Lincoln standing over a kneeling, shirtless ex-slave and granting him freedom. The fist of the Black man is clenched and there are broken shackles at Lincoln’s feet. Money to build the memorial was raised almost exclusively from Black Americans, many former slaves themselves. See the monument here.
April 14, 1876, the day of the memorial’s dedication, was a day of celebration. There was a huge parade, and the day was declared a federal holiday. President Ulysses S. Grant unveiled the monument right before Frederick Douglass took the stage for one of his most powerful speeches ever.
As usual, Frederick did not sugarcoat the situation. His beginning was cordial enough: “We are here to express, as best we may, by appropriate forms and ceremonies, our grateful sense of the vast, high, and preeminent services rendered to ourselves, to our race, to our country, and to the whole world by Abraham Lincoln.” But then, this:
We fully comprehend the relation of Abraham Lincoln both to ourselves and to the White people of the United States. Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places, and it is never more proper and beautiful in any case than when speaking of a great public man whose example is likely to be commended for honor and imitation long after his departure to the solemn shades, the silent continents of eternity. It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a White man. He was preeminently the White man's president, entirely devoted to the welfare of White men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the Colored people to promote the welfare of the White people of this country.
At the end of his speech, however, he came to this:
But by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events, and in view of that divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will, we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln. It mattered little to us what language he might employ on special occasions; it mattered little to us, when we fully knew him, whether he was swift or slow in his movements; it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States.
In other words, Lincoln the man eventually met the moment — and forever changed the lives of millions, however sloppy and inelegant his process was at times.
In my mind, we must look at these flawed men in their entirety, not simply by their greatest missteps in the limitations of their time. Yes, George Washington owned slaves, but he also was a heroic commander in chief, who fought heroically for the United States, saved the Union, and helped establish our country around our new Constitution.