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Shatter rock and chain / July 29, 2020
In living memory in Southside Virginia, there’s never been a time when our day-to-day affairs were conducted out of earshot of Confederate symbols at the public square. My childhood took place in the Town of Halifax, where a statue honoring the county’s brave Confederate soldiers was first erected on the courthouse lawn in 1911. (The original was replaced over the years, due to storm damage and, horror of horrors, the botched delivery of a statue of a Union soldier.) Halifax’s monument loomed over Main Street as I’d ride my bicycle around town, delivering afternoon copies of the Richmond News-Leader to the subscribers on my route. When I got a little older, I’d stroll past the statue on the walk home from junior high school, making a detour to the town’s drug store cafe for french fries and a Coke. The Confederate soldier at the Halifax County Courthouse was a stolid, unflinching totem of life in the rural South. In the years of my childhood and all years henceforth.

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Statues in Boydton (left) and Halifax.

Virginia’s courthouse squares have problematic histories — these were places, after all, where machine politics found purchase for much of the 20th century, in contrast to people of the wrong complexion or wrong politics who were shut out entirely — but while old injustices can be confronted and overcome, statues tend to just sit there, ignored and sometimes forgotten altogether. Take the trip to the Town of Halifax and you’ll gaze upon a thoroughly unimpressive granite figure off to the side of the courthouse green, stained and weather-beaten, looking forlorn and maybe even a little embarrassed by its current neglect.

Confederate statues of the South have lingered to the present era, with relatively little said against them and even less done about them. That time has now come to an end, whether the monuments themselves remain in place or not. We’ve all seen the scenes from Richmond, the grand Capitol of the Confederacy, where protestors demanding the removal of the city’s regal sculptures have ransacked Monument Avenue in fits of rage and impatience. Presumably this lawless approach to canceling the Confederacy won’t be — and certainly shouldn’t be — repeated here. But the debate over what to do with our bronze and stone Confederate soldiers? That’s an argument that can no longer be avoided.

County governing boards in Mecklenburg and Halifax are considering what, if anything, to do about the Confederate statues at their respective courthouse squares. This reassesement comes as public views on issues of racial equity have changed rapidly in the wake of high-profile killings of African Americans, in police custody and otherwise, amid a national health crisis that has disproportionately harmed communities of color, many of whose members perform low-paid, unprotected work that society requires to function. Racial inequities are there for all to see, provided we are willing to open our eyes and hearts to the reality that the American experiment — that all people are created equal — remains a broken ideal for far too many.

With the country on fire, Confederate statues would seem to be the least of our problems. So why bother litigating the issue now? If everyone’s so hell-bent to get rid of these statues, why haven’t they said so before? These are fair questions. So let’s attempt to answer them: What is so important about these statues that they must come down now?

The answer begins with the importance of symbolism — “There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum,” said the science fiction writer Arthur Clarke. Hopeful? It requires a depraved view of history to ascribe honor, much less hope, to the cause of the Confederate South. The war that its leadership sought out was fought to defend a thoroughly wicked cause — the enslavement of African laborers to support a plantation economy, in which all white men putatively had equal social standing but most of the tangible rewards accrued to a very few. Not long after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the work of rewriting the disgraceful ideology that animated the Confederacy began. The Civil War, according to this honeyed version of history, was fought for all sorts of reasons other than slavery, with a string of casus belli trotted out by pro-South historians — tariffs, states rights, other slights wrapped up in the notion of a “war against northern aggression.” In more recent years, the Lost Cause has given way to an even more denuded reason to celebrate the Old South: “Heritage, not hate.”

Contemporaries of the era on both sides harbored no such delusions. Ulysses S. Grant may have put it best, describing in his memoirs the feeling of emptiness at seeing “the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” Long before then, Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy, gave his famous Corner Stone speech in March 1861, in which he recited the litany of economic and political injuries inflicted by the North upon the seven original Confederate states (Virginia signed up later), all leading to this:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time …

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth … Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place.

The bald-faced racism of Alexander Stephens may be something we believed was relegated to the past, despite his spiritual heirs finding room to roam in national politics for the entirety of the 20th century. Thinking we ever moved beyond this evil in the 21st century was a misguided notion. Four years ago, America had a black president finishing up his second term in the White House. Now we have a president who has put down the dog whistle and picked up a bullhorn to spout ugly bigotries on a regular basis. White nationalists — “some very good people” — march on college campuses to claim America for their own. There are white nationalists who hide behind the honor and duty of the police badge to wage heedless violence against people of color. The cornerstones of a just society, fashioned in our own time, were supposedly recast through the civil rights movement to bring us closer to Jeffersonian ideals of liberty, equality and fair treatment of all. Yet Jefferson’s “rock” remains as riddled with fractures as ever.

Growing up in a small Southern town, one becomes accustomed to casual racism — the N-word, the stupid and unfunny jokes, the meanness of spirit behind it all. What has been startling to me in recent years is seeing the filter come off — increasingly, people seem comfortable with spouting hateful sentiments in public as the old guardrails of societal shame are lowered. Watching open racists and hatemongers crawl out of their holes to assume places of prominence — from hosting Fox News programs on down the line — has been a bracing experience, to put it mildly. (This week’s latest example: A couple wore swastika facemasks to go shopping at a Minnesota WalMart.) I’ll grant the fact that flying the Confederate flag doesn’t automatically make a person a racist, that human relationships are much more complex than that, but we’re long past the point where symbols of the Old South exist in a vacuum. Blame the expropriation of hate groups all you want, but Confederate iconography has returned to its toxic origins, no longer innocuous, and wholly unworthy of honor in our public spaces.

There’s a certain privilege that allows a person to wave away the dark symbolism of Confederate statues — it’s the same privilege that helps one to put up with casual racism without doing a damned thing about it. After all, those N-bombs weren’t meant for me. Those statues at the square aren’t something I should have to worry about. Yet these statues — cheap molds, mostly, chunked out as public demand for signifiers of white supremacy exploded in the Jim Crow era — speak volumes to their intended audience, past and present, in delivering a message of exclusion and intimidation. It’s a special insult to place a Confederate soldier at the courthouse door, our supposed portal to equal treatment under the law. To the extent this kind of thing might not have been worth getting worked up about in the past, it is now. The open resurgence of racist hate in America must be stared down, cast asunder and defeated. The casual approach no longer cuts it.

Last month, a fifth anniversary passed quietly: on July 17, 2015, Dylann Roof stepped into a Charleston, S.C., church and gunned down nine African American worshippers in cold blood. At the state Capitol in Columbia, the Confederate flag flew in front of the Confederate Soldiers Monument on the statehouse grounds as the murders were unfolding. Roof, a proud neo-Confederate, committed his shocking crimes in the belief they would spark a wider race war. The great Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the next day in The Atlantic that “Roof’s crime cannot be divorced from the ideology of white supremacy which has long animated his state not from its potent symbols — the Confederate flag.” That racist ideology, as Coates masterfully detailed in his essay, has been dressed up, explained away, watered down through dubious invocations of heritage and history, but people who study that history come to know it well enough — for good and ill. Coates concluded:

Moral cowardice requires choice and action. It demands that its adherents repeatedly look away, that they favor the fanciful over the plain, myth over history, the dream over the real. Here is another choice.

Take down the flag. Take it down now.

Put it in a museum. Inscribe beneath it the years 1861-2015. Move forward. Abandon this charlatanism. Drive out this cult of death and chains. Save your lovely souls. Move forward. Do it now.

It shouldn’t take the blood of innocents to give force to these words. Save our lovely souls — take our Confederate statues down now.

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