By John Cox
August 29, 2017
“All those folks worried about erasing history when Confederate monuments come down will be thrilled to learn about the existence of books.” – Jamil Smith, August 16
“All black Americans are born into a society which is determined—repeat, determined—that they shall never know the truth about themselves or their society.” – James Baldwin, “Black Power,” 1968 (in Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Essays, Vintage Books, 2011, page 102)
This past weekend I traveled to Asheville, a town I’ve visited dozens of times. I finally took a closer look at the monument to Confederate-era political and military leader Zebulon Vance that towers over downtown Asheville. Like other such monuments, you learn nothing from gazing upon it: simply the dates of his birth and death, and the fact that it was placed there by a racist organization many decades after the Civil War.
A monument to Robert E. Lee is a few steps away, in the city’s central square. It was foisted upon Pack Square during a time of intense racist violence and terrorism: 1920, a few months after “red summer” (racist pogroms throughout much of the nation, claiming the lives of hundreds of Black people). The late 1910s and 1920s also witnessed the dramatic rise of a new, revitalized KKK. As always with Confederate monuments, it was erected as a threat.
Walk down the hill a couple hundred yards and you can actually learn something — quite a bit — about the city’s African-American history from this wonderful mural, which is off the beaten path and seen by few.
The August 10-11 racist mobilizations and violence in Charlottesville – violence that extended far beyond the car attack that killed Heather Heyer – provoked renewed debate about Confederate memorialization. The racist/fascist mobilization was called in defense of a statue of the cruel slave-master Robert E. Lee, a man whose racism exceeded the norm among whites of the era … no easy feat.
What is memorialized by Confederate statues and historical markers
In 2015 the Southern Poverty Law Center launched an effort to catalog and map Confederate place names and other symbols in public spaces, both in the South and across the nation. This study, while far from comprehensive, identified a total of 1,503.
Into the 21st century, so many years after the Civil War, memorials for to celebrate slavery are still being built:
“You are changing history,” Donald Trump said on Tuesday of efforts to remove Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, and elsewhere across the United States. “You’re changing culture.”
History about as old as the George W Bush presidency, it turns out in a surprising number of cases – and culture stretching back to the heyday of Britney Spears.
Thirty-two Confederate memorials have been dedicated in the past 17 years, according to a survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). That’s at least 135 years after the demise of the secessionist movement the monuments ostensibly celebrate.”
The SPLC report includes this clear explanation of the meaning and purpose of these memorials:
“The argument that the Confederate flag and other displays represent “heritage, not hate” ignores the near-universal heritage of African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved by the millions in the South. It trivializes their pain, their history and their concerns about racism — whether it’s the racism of the past or that of today. And it conceals the true history of the Confederate States of America and the seven decades of Jim Crow segregation and oppression that followed the Reconstruction era.
…. Despite the well-documented history of the Civil War, legions of Southerners still cling to the myth of the Lost Cause as a noble endeavor fought to defend the region’s honor and its ability to govern itself in the face of Northern aggression.
This deeply rooted but false narrative is the result of many decades of revisionism in the lore and even textbooks of the South that sought to create a more acceptable version of the region’s past. The Confederate monuments and other symbols that dot the South are very much a part of that effort.”
What is not memorialized
Here are a few other examples of histories that are overshadowed, literally and figuratively, by the hundreds of Confederate memorials that dot the landscape:
- In 1912 a racist pogrom destroyed the Black communities of Forsyth County, GA and drove all African-Americans out. The county remained all-white for nearly the remainder of the century. In January 1987 I traveled with students from NC A&T State University to participate in a big protest there and learned for the first time about this highly significant but little-known episode.
Toward the end of his excellent 2016 book about the “ethnic cleansing” of Forsyth County, Patrick Phillips writes:
“You won’t find a single trace of 1912, or any acknowledgement of the racial cleansing that defined the county for most of the 20th century…. There is no memorial to the lynching of Rob Edwards. There are no photographs of black leaders like Joseph and Eliza Kellogg, Levi Greenlee, and Byrd Oliver among all the Confederate portraits at the county Historical Society. And no marker anywhere tells new black residents that they are far from the first African Americans to live in Forsyth.
Instead, gazing out over the square is a larger-than-life bronze statue of Hiram Parks Bell, Confederate Congressman and self-described defender of ‘white over black domination.’
Walk from Bell’s statue … and you will find signs of the county’s newfound wealth everywhere …. But nothing will point you to the spot where the corpse of Rob Edwards hung from a telephone poll all through the afternoon of September 10, 1912.”
- You will also struggle to find historical markers that could serve to educate the public about the thousands of lynchings — that most grisly form of racist terrorism — which thrived from the 1890s through the 1930s and that have always been a feature of American life. Bryan Stephenson and the Equal Justice Initiative is trying to do something about this.
- From one of many intelligent commentaries circulating in the blogosphere since Charlottesville, a post titled “Thoughts on Confederate Statues from a Southern White Man”: “I keep hearing people say that their removal is an attempt to erase history. This misses the point entirely. The memorials themselves were an attempt to erase history. If these monuments were about history, we would see statues of slaves being whipped by their owners, black families being torn apart as they were sold to different places, and plantation owners with their black slave mistresses and children.”
- Like most North Carolinians, I never learned about the 1898 Wilmington coup and racist takeover – that is, I learned nothing about this in 12 years of public school and four years of college in North Carolina. Its significance can hardly be overstated. It was “this country’s only recorded coup d’etat” and “likely became a catalyst for the violent white-supremacist movement around the country…. Later violence — in Atlanta in 1906; Tulsa, Okla., in 1921; and Rosewood, Fla., in 1923 — mimicked that in Wilmington, and some white leaders called on the North Carolina violence as an example to incite fear in blacks.”
- Timothy Tyson is an outstanding historian of racism in the South and author of several wonderful books, including his study of Robert F. Williams, the influential, uncompromising freedom fighter whose story is known to few people here in the Monroe, NC and Charlotte area. After the Charlottesville events Tyson wrote an editorial, “Commemorating North Carolina’s anti-Confederate heritage, too,” that I will excerpt at length.
“If your family has been in North Carolina since the Civil War like mine has, your ancestors might well have detested the Confederacy. If you added up the African-Americans, the Unionists, the anti-Confederate rebels, the anti-war crowd and those who simply hated what the Confederacy did to their home state, they might have outnumbered the hardcore Confederates.
White North Carolinians erected the vast majority of our Confederate monuments – 82 out of 98 – after 1898, decades after the Civil War ended. More importantly, they built the monuments after the white supremacy campaigns had seized power by force and taken the vote from black North Carolinians. The monuments reflected that moment of white supremacist ascendency as much as they did the Confederate legacy.
Take the Confederate monument on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, better known as “Silent Sam.” The speaker at its dedication in 1913, industrialist Julian S. Carr, bragged that he had “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because … she had publicly insulted … a Southern lady.”
Today, there are about 100 Confederate monuments in North Carolina, five on the Capitol grounds in Raleigh. There are no monuments to the slaves that built our state. There are none for the interracial Reconstruction government of the 1860s, which gave us the North Carolina Constitution we still try to live under and built our first system of free, tax-supported public schools.
Our statehouse displays no statues to celebrate the interracial Fusion movement of the 1890s, which could have led the way into a different kind of South. We have no monuments on our courthouse lawns to the interracial civil rights movement that helped to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made black Southerners full citizens for the first time. There are no monuments at the Capitol to Abraham Galloway, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Ella Baker or Julius Chambers.
Only one side of our racial history – the Confederates and the white supremacy movement – gets public monuments in North Carolina.”
Why these monuments should go
I’ll conclude with excerpts from a statement posted on facebook on August 15 by Reverend Rodney Sadler, long-time fixture in the local and national struggle for human rights and a decent society:
“This is part of my heritage that I want to be buried once and for all. As a resident of North Carolina I can’t remember the number of times I have driven down a road and seen a faded Confederate flag fluttering from a pole in the wind in front of an old country home, seen one of those flags on a license plate or bumper sticker usually of an older model pickup truck, even seen it on the bedroom wall of one of my roommates in the apartment I shared with 3 law students when I taught religion at the College of William and Mary. To me it means much the same as would a swastika to a Jewish American; it is a symbol of hatred, danger, and the threat of death.
I am offended each time I see a Confederate flag…as well I should be. In fact, that is its precise purpose! It is intended to invoke fear in those having black and brown bodies and pride in those imagining themselves white. [See James Baldwin, “On Being White … and Other Lies.” – JC]
It was a relic all but entombed, resurfaced during the African American struggle to achieve Civil Rights and full and equal citizenship….
Actually, it was never an official Confederate flag at all. It was one among many flown by Confederate states and only later popularized by the Ku Klux Klan in the period of the Reconstruction. It is not really a Confederate flag at all, but a Klan symbol replete with the values vested in it by America’s oldest enduring terrorist group.
Though born of treason it remains to mark the boundaries some would ascribe to humanity. For those reasons alone it should be relegated to the dung heaps of our nation, save for its presence in a museum to mark America’s oldest sin.”
One day later:
“All of us are here, and we are willing to take whatever responsibility, whatever consequences come along with the removal of that statue.”
How you can help Takiyah and others: The Freedom Fighter Bond Fund of the Carolinas, a project of Durham Solidarity Center.