It’s high time to remove these symbols of terrorism and repression from our public spaces!
You’d have to be hiding under a rock to not know about the tragic events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday. Anyone who’s anyone has weighed in on this subject. For anyone who is in any way connected to the public sphere, the world is watching and the American public needs to know where you stand!
Just so there’s no question about where I stand, I say:
“It’s high time to remove symbols of terrorism, violence, racism, bigotry and repression from our public spaces!”
I can’t stand by and watch people say that these symbols somehow represent the cultural heritage of the South.
Let me just set the historical record straight here. First, I am a great, great granddaughter of Confederates – on both sides of my family. And my ancestors were WRONG!!! (Hmm. No one’s rolling over in their grave!)
The reason they fought this war was to preserve the system of slavery and the profits they gained from this immoral practice.
I can’t believe I have to remind people about some basic facts of history, but apparently, if President Trump can put Robert E. Lee on an equal basis with George Washington, we need to do a quick review here.
As a teacher of ESL I am often asked about American history. My students come from Europe, Latin America and Asia. I don’t expect them to know much about American history. Monday’s conversation class revolved around the events in Charlottesville. My students had many questions. I gave them as brief an explanation as possible, then I turned to them and asked about civil wars in their country, and how they have handled public statues and symbols from those divisive times.
One student, Juan, is from Spain. Spain’s civil war was much more recent than our’s and as bloody and divisive as a civil war could be. Juan was confused.
“I thought the South lost the war. Usually the victor writes history. Why were the Confederates allowed to keep their symbols and statues if they lost?”
“Ah, that is because the South lost the war, but they won the battle!” I replied.
So here is the brief history lesson that obviously bears repeating! After Reconstruction ended and the Union left the South to its own devices, all the Southern states decreed they would “Restore the Old South!” Read: restore the era of slavery without calling it slavery. Southern states enacted Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise blacks and put them back into the same place on the social and economic scale as they were before the war. That was their legal answer to restoring the Old South.
The extra-legal answer was to form the worst terrorist organization this country has ever known (if you don’t include the U.S. government’s terrorist campaign of genocide against Native Americans…) The KKK and other hate groups grew up from this call to restore the Old South. They used terrorism, violence, intimidation, and outrageous propaganda to further their cause. The symbols they used to strike fear into the hearts of anyone who dared oppose them, or who dared to stand up for their rights, was the confederate flag. Ask anyone who has been the victim of a KKK attack. The confederate flag and a burning cross are the symbols used to create fear and repression.
One only need to look up the history of the incorporation of the confederate flag into the flags of Southern states to know exactly what was going on. The state of Georgia did not adopt the confederate symbol until 1955 in a reaction to the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. the Board of Education, and its follow-up decision requiring all schools to desegregate. Thus, the confederate flag was the symbol used as a rallying cry to once again, “Restore the Old South!”, to fight against desegregation, and to resist voter registration of blacks, among other things.
Georgia finally came to terms with that racist symbol, which was the official state flag until 2003, when it was finally replaced. The state of South Carolina took down the confederate flag which flew atop the state house in 2015 after a gunman broke into a church and gunned down nine people. Now, there is only one state which still has the confederate flag, which, apparently was never adopted as the official flag: Mississippi, my home state.
What about that other public symbol of the confederacy, Stone Mountain Georgia? It proudly displays Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. (Apparently, Donald Trump lumps President George Washington into this same group!).
Stone Mountain has great historical significance because it was where the Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1915. (Now, isn’t that something to crow about!) It was the Daughters of the Confederacy,-those lovely, genteel Southern belles who swore to keep alive the dream of “Restoring the Old South” – who decided in 1916 to commission the monument to these confederate generals. (This was also the beginning of the Nadir, an era of lynchings, murder, bombings, and violent attacks. Still ongoing???)
Stone Mountain was a project that sputtered for years, but after the state of Georgia bought the site in 1958, then-governor Marvin Griffin decreed the project should continue. Work began in 1963, a very bloody period in civil rights history, and was completed in 1972, a time when the South finally had to concede to desegregation. The timing of this is not coincidental. Georgia was declaring loudly and boldly that they would not desegregate without a fight and they proclaimed it on the side of Stone Mountain!
Historian and journalist Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, rightly call this “historical amnesia”. To say that confederate statues and flags somehow represent the cultural heritage of the South, without mentioning that they have been used for over a hundred years by terrorist organizations and hate groups, is to ignore the historical facts.
Historical amnesia can occur if we choose to forget our past, to whitewash it, or not discuss it. No one can erase my historical memory. I can proudly say:
“I’ve been around for more than half a century, so DON’T FUCK WITH ME about history!!!!”
I was 6 years-old when I entered into first grade in the Jackson, Mississippi school system in 1969 when the public schools, after dragging their feet for nearly 15 years, had to desegregate. I didn’t know anything about that at the time, because I was just a child and my mother cared not one iota that I went to school with black children.
One thing I was very aware of, were the bomb threats. Every year I was in elementary school, from 1969 up to about 1974, we had bomb threats in the schools. Some white supremacist would call and say they had planted a bomb in our school and threatened to blow up hundreds of innocent children! Our teachers took us out of the classrooms and onto the fields where we would wait until a bomb squad could scour the school and clear that it was safe to go back inside.
That is what I am reminded of when I see those same hate groups protesting the removal of confederate symbols from public places. These guys threatened to blow me up for going to school with black children!!!!
If we don’t come to terms with this past, we cannot heal. The past carries on into the present. The story of these symbols should be told, but it should be told in a context that includes a real historical perspective. We need to amass a historical record akin to the project that Steven Spielberg mounted to record the memories of Holocaust survivors for exactly the same reason. As those who lived this history get older and begin to die, history can be re-written to serve the needs of hate groups. They are already doing it.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about “The New South.” I’m still waiting for it. Well, we can start by taking down these public symbols and by clearly and emphatically denouncing the racism, bigotry and violence of these white supremacist hate groups and the symbols they support!
It’s time to make this declaration ourselves, and to demand that our elected officials do the same!
Elizabeth I. Bercaw,
B.A. in history from Millsaps College, Jackson, Ms
B.A. in political science from Georgia State University, Atlanta, Ga.