This essay appeared on September 3, 2017 on page I12 of the Springfield News-Leader under the News-leader’s title “A New Narrative is needed on Confederate Statues."
The recent racist demonstrations in Charlottesville and the ensuing riots are a graphic reminder that all Americans do not share the same values, or the same national story. There are many narratives that Americans have adopted to explain themselves—two conflicting views were in evidence at Charlottesville, revealed by the images streaming from our television sets. Elements of the Alt Right, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Neo-Nazis held a demonstration around Civil War Monuments in Charlottesville celebrating White Power and vilifying African Americans, Jews, and any others they held to be different from themselves. As a result there has been a backlash against civil war monuments. Some have been torn down and others removed. There have been cries to put them all in museums—"get rid of them" seems to be the sentiment of a vocal part of our countrymen.
I am a son of the post-reconstruction South, born in Louisiana, reared and educated in the segregated public school system of Greenville, Mississippi (1940-52). I do not recall ever having seen a civil war monument during my early youth, although I must have seen a few. At least I can say for certain that in my education the War of Rebellion and its leaders were never extolled or held up for special honor. The "stars and bars" as the confederate battle flag is called was, and still is ubiquitous throughout the south, but in Greenville it was never displayed in public buildings or functions. Online I discovered that Greenville has one civil war monument at the Washington County Courthouse, erected in 1909 by the Private Taylor Rucks Chapter Daughters of the Confederacy "To Commemorate the Valor and Patriotism of the Confederate Soldiers of Washington County 1861-1865." The statue itself presents a single common soldier of the line. On the four faces at the base are statements by Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Randolph H. M'Kim, and Charles B. Galloway. Except for the statement by Jefferson Davis (who mentions "the sacred cause of states' rights"), the others do not specifically relate to the war, and in themselves might be judged inspiring.
A 2017 study reported that at least 1503 symbols of the confederacy can be found in public spaces across the United States. These memorials include monuments and statues; flags; holidays and other observances; and the names of schools, roads, parks, bridges, counties, cities, lakes, dams, military bases, and other public works.1
We cannot ease or erase our national shame for having accepted and tolerated slavery as a convenient solution to economic problems (even as early as our colonial period) by eradicating vestiges of the War of Rebellion. Such symbols are part of our history as a people, whatever the reason they were erected. What is needed is a new narrative that puts these symbols into national, rather than regional perspective, so that there is a more compelling narrative that completely disallows racist rhetoric and ideology. These surviving vestiges of the civil war are like the "stones" the Israelites erected after crossing over the Jordan. The stones were to remain a memorial so that "when your children ask in time to come 'What do these stones mean to you?' You shall tell them…" (Joshua 4:1-24). In my view, the monuments should remain in place and not be hidden away, but rather officially placed in perspective as symbols of a flawed cause, misplaced loyalties, and the enslavement of human beings. We must not be allowed to forget.
Any cause that calls one to bigotry, racial hatred, the disparagement and inhumane treatment of others, and/or aims to romanticize or otherwise misstate the national significance of the War of Rebellion by appealing to these vestiges of the war deserves to be condemned.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University