Over the weekend, a member of the Mississippi state House of Representatives, Karl Oliver, took to Facebook to vent his frustrations at New Orleans’ removal of Confederate post-reconstruction monuments in the neighboring state of Louisiana. Calling his statement offensive on many levels is an understatement.
Yesterday, Oliver deleted the comments and posted a clumsy and half-hearted apology after his remarks were criticized widely on social media and by fellow members of Mississippi’s state government.
While Oliver’s comments were especially noticeable for their openly racist tone, they are by no means unique in the recent backlash to the removal of Confederate statuary in New Orleans and elsewhere. They all share a common line of attack, variations on a theme of claiming that liberals and democrats are trying to erase history. Southern lawmakers have gone so far as to compare their removal to ISIS’ destruction of ancient sites and to Nazi book burning. Corey Stewart, GOP candidate for Virginia governor, took to Twitter to declare ‘nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner his monuments don’t matter.’ Stewart, who hails from Minnesota, had already found his support sliding after several months of draping himself in the Confederate flag and calling those who criticized him for it ‘nervous nellies,’ though he still draws roughly 25% support in polls for the upcoming primary.
Ask any Southerner who defends the Confederate battle flag or monuments to Confederate generals why they do so, and without failing they will respond ‘we’re just celebrating our culture and heritage.’ It’s a flimsy excuse that wilts under the slightest critical examination. The symbolism of the flag and monuments is rooted in one thing only—white supremacy. While I don’t doubt there are some Southerners who do not intend to advocate white supremacy by embracing these symbols, they are being willfully blind to the history involved. The people who erected and inscribed these monuments harbored no illusions about exactly what type of ‘culture and heritage’ they were promoting.
The particular Robert E. Lee statue that Oliver and Stewart rushed to defend was, until 1993, inscribed with the following: “United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election in November 1876 recognized white supremacy and gave us our state. McEnery and Penn, having been elected governor and lieutenant governor by the white people, were duly installed by the overthrow of the carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers Gov. Kellogg (white) and Lt. Gov. Antoine (colored).”
Revisionist history has claimed for years, essentially since the end of Reconstruction, that Robert E. Lee, a slave owner, was opposed to the institution of slavery but fought for the Confederacy out of a sense of obligation to his home state of Virginia. Like a $35 t-shirt bearing the face of Che Guevara, this should be so ridiculous as to be dismissed out of hand, but both continue to be bought unquestioningly by those eager to believe in and embrace history they have no desire to understand. For a Southerner really interested in celebrating their culture, they would presumably find things to be proud of outside of a pro-slavery war their ancestors lost over 150 years ago. New Orleans has given the world Jazz music, Cajun cuisine and an entire district devoted to year-round daytime drinking, among many other things. Any one of them would be a much better example of proud Southern heritage than the Confederacy, which represents the darkest chapter of America’s story.
It doesn’t take much digging at all to discover who has really attempted to rewrite history, and the historians who did so have been successful in muddying the waters of Civil War history for a great number of people. Go to any news article or Facebook post about the monuments, and you’ll find scores who, without prodding, will say that the Civil War was not about slavery at all. Unfortunately for them, the intent of the secessionists was clear and well documented. The first state to declare its secession, South Carolina in December of 1860, cited a single issue—slavery. Every state which followed cited slavery in their declaration. Most attempted to make constitutional arguments to the legality of their seccession, but few went so far as to cite a grievance with the Federal government outside of slavery. The ‘Cornerstone Speech,’ by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, made it clear that the war was to be waged to preserve slavery as an outright rejection of the Jeffersonian ideal that ‘all men are created equal.’ Responding to that specific phrase, Stephens said, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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.”
White southerners who have embraced Confederate symbolism have two options, if they wish to actually be truthful in regards to their history. The first option would be to recognize and concede that the Confederacy was fighting solely for the purpose of preserving slavery, and that this is a history to be confronted, not celebrated. This would require critical self-examination regarding their own feelings toward race, which has not traditionally been a strong suit for white Americans anywhere, regardless of their geography. It would call for the elevation and adulation of figures who fought to undermine the institution of slavery instead of continuing to honor those who fought to protect it. The second and darker option: they could admit that, yes, they believe in white supremacy and the segregation of the races. While this is plainly abhorrent, admitting it would at least be honest. An honest foe is a foe that can be fought on recognizable ground, which is probably why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, and numerous other figures of the civil rights movement asserted that the enemy which most concerned them in the fight for civil rights was not the open racist, it was the white moderate. In the words of King,
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
If we’re being sober, we have to admit that most white Southerners have on some internal level grasped this basic conundrum, and too many have either chosen the path of white supremacy, or to simply stay silent. It is not staid Civil War historians or art preservationists who have turned out to rally around and defend these monuments; it has been open white supremacists and neo-nazis. And it has not been the white moderates who have spoken out to condemned them, it has by and large been black Southerners, who after 240 years of slavery, 100 years of segregation and Jim Crow, and 50 years of ever-present hostility, are still demanding to be treated as equal human beings, and still finding support sadly lacking from their white counterparts.
This is not an indictment of all white Southerners. There are those who have stood up bravely, today and through the years, to fight for the rights of black Americans. New Orleans’ mayor, Mitch Landrieu, gave a remarkable address on the removal of the monuments, which Slate’s Jamelle Bouie called “one of the most honest speeches on race ever given by a white southern pol.” But too many more have sat quietly by and done nothing. If the American south is ever going to move past its history of racism, it will take active engagement by these moderates, who to date have been content to let the white supremacists speak for them through their silence. At this crossroads, I hope every American, and especially Southerner, of conscience will find it in themselves to do the right thing, to condemn the hate currently rising in their midst, and to confront and learn from their past. An American south that strongly rejected its racist past, fought against it in the present, and worked to build a future without it, would leave for their descendants a culture and heritage they could truly celebrate.