Jul 5, 2020
Yes, the Confederate statues should come down, smashed to little bits. They are not just innocent chunks of cement or rock. They symbolize the depraved system whose goal was slavery, the ownership of human beings for commercial purposes.
The statues that young people are tearing down today portray as heroic those violent men who carried out a brutal war to preserve slavery. In the Constitutional Convention establishing the Confederacy, its new vice president, Alexander Stephens, laid out the despicable aim of the Southern rebels: “Our new government is founded upon the great idea that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that Slavery, subordination to the superior, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”
This was the Confederacy, this was what all the generals from Robert E. Lee on down were fighting to impose: to maintain slavery in the South, to push it out into the Western territories and up into Midwestern farming states.
Whatever Lincoln’s slow trajectory, whatever hesitations, he understood that one country could not exist half slave labor, half free labor. It wasn’t a moral choice, it was a practical one, but a practical choice that had moral implications. Lincoln’s quality was to recognize what Northern Generals Grant and Sherman recognized before him, that the North could not win unless it emancipated the slaves. The troops of the Northern armies were the sons of Northern farmers who understood that same truth. The South was defeated when the slaves freed themselves, leaving the plantations, crippling the Southern economy, reinforcing the Northern armies in the push to root out the slave power. The slaves pulled behind them many landless whites who had no stake in the Confederacy’s war. Together they pulled the poor whites who deserted from the Confederate army.
For a while after the war, a real democracy grew up in the South based on the rural poor, the former slaves and the poor whites, both of whom desperately needed land. This was Reconstruction, the brief period after the Civil War when the poor population, working together, set up their own governments, establishing schools for children, medical clinics for a population beset by illness.
The statues that are coming down now did not exist during that period. In fact, they were not erected until almost 40 years after the end of the Civil War. They went up to celebrate the reign of terror that swept through the South, getting rid of Reconstruction, pushing the ex-slaves back into conditions of near slavery.
Former Confederate generals established the Ku Klux Klan, using it as the violent instrument for undoing emancipation. Edmund Pettus, a former Confederate general, led this new KKK. His statue is among those being torn down today.
All of those statues were set up to say to the black population, know your place, stay in it—and to say to the poor white population, consider yourself lucky, even if you are poor, that you aren’t black. Every one of those statues is linked to a bloodbath in the South. Lynching was the fate of black men for how many generations; rape was the fate of black women for how many generations. Poor whites, facing the KKK, turned themselves into craven enforcers of the resurrected old order.
This is the history that people like Trump want to celebrate and preserve: the violent history the KKK imposed on everyone living in the South.
But there is another history, and this is the one we should celebrate. The black population managed not only to survive, but to organize communities, to pass on their history from one generation to another, to pass on the knowledge gained from living communally, depending on each other, drawing strength from each other. There is an enormous moral strength coming out of that experience that comes down to us today.
This history is the one we should celebrate, all of us, black, white, and immigrant.