The basic principles and ideals of our country, of our Commonwealth, and of all good Americans, are under attack at this time. Neo-Nazis, KKK members, white supremacists, and some uninformed political leaders, are attempting to turn a legitimate debate about the display and future of memorials of the southern Confederacy into a race and culture war, not just a debate. We, as citizens of this great country and state, must resist this assault by traitors to America on the most important tenet: that all people are created equal.
I am very aware of the desire of many to “protect” our southern heritage; to preserve the history of the struggle of the Confederacy against “northern aggression.” I grew up in southern Virginia in the 40’s and 50’s, a white boy who was taught in school that Robert E. Lee was a great man, a great leader, a great general. I accepted that, and even though my parents taught me that every person is entitled to his or her own dignity, I, for years, displayed a picture of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox in my law office. I thought it was the right thing to do, to protect the “heritage” of the south.
I have learned over the years that the world has changed, and it has changed largely because of the nearly universal acceptance that slavery is simply and morally wrong, even though many of our founding fathers were actually slave owners; and it is changed by the adoption, co-option, and use of the Confederate battle flag by the KKK; by white supremacists; by the murderer of nine citizens in a church in Charleston, S.C., a KKK sympathizer who wanted to start a race war; by bombings in scores of predominantly black churches; by the killing of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964; by the recent KKK-sponsored torch-carrying march on a recent Friday night in Charlottesville; and finally, by the evil and anti-American examples of prejudice and hate and premeditated violence by the neo-Nazis and other white supremacists on the following Saturday.
This is not the first time that a symbol of pride to some has become bastardized and co-opted by criminal and anti-societal elements. The swastika was originally a religious symbol in India of good fortune, tolerance and positivity, thousands of years old. Hitler and the Nazis took it, turned it to their evil purposes, and now the symbol is universally a pariah.
My earlier view of some of the symbols of the South has changed. I am supremely proud of my southern heritage, by the tradition of the southern family, by our food, our music, our love of individuality. I will always be a proud southerner, just as Bostonians are proud of their city, as Montanans are proud of their grand and beautiful state. But I am no longer proud that the Confederacy fought to preserve slavery, and that our military leaders were fighting to preserve white supremacy. Please, don’t fall for the lie that the War Between the States was about economics and to combat northern aggression; yes, it was about economics, but it was about the economic advantage that farmers who kept slaves had over farmers who had to pay their employees. The “northern aggression” was a fight to prevent secession from the United States by slaveholding states, and the aggression was intended to free thousands, maybe millions, of black citizens who were being treated like farm animals; usually fed well, but at the beck and call of the owner, for whatever service he desired.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, after the recent removal of Confederate memorials from his city, described New Orleans as the True South, with persons of myriad races and cultures, of many religions, coming from many countries, and living together. I agree with him. He said, “[the] Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and of humanity and does not belong on a pedestal to be revered.”
It is time that the monuments that aggrandize the generals who tried to keep people enslaved are taken down. But, and please remember this, it is also time that the monuments to the soldier/citizens that fell on both sides of the battle are kept in place. The fallen soldiers, the blacksmiths, the farm laborers, the shop workers, should be remembered and memorialized for their sacrifice in giving their lives in a fight from which they would likely never see a benefit, and their graves should remain as sanctified and sacred places. Many citizens are not aware of The Twenty-Slave Law, passed by the Confederate Congress on October 11, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861–1865), which created an exemption to military conscription for the owners of twenty or more slaves. That makes it clear that it was the workers who fought and died for this cause, not the slaveowners.
I did not expect that, as a true southerner, I would have come to this place, but the real truth is that Robert E. Lee was an educated man, a very qualified general who “chose” to fight to keep people enslaved, to divide the United States. He was by all accounts a great general, in fact his military skills may have resulted in the deaths of many more young men in a losing and indefensible cause. He will always be remembered in the history books as a brilliant military leader, just as many other defeated generals in other countries are remembered. But Lee’s and other Confederate generals’ mission was simply wrong, and his memory should be preserved in history books, not monuments. The suggestion by some that the next step will be to remove references to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers is simply ridiculous; yes, slavery was present at the beginning of our country, but Washington and Jefferson helped form this country, and make most of us free; they did not try to secede from it and fight a war to preserve slavery.
It is time to move beyond the veneration of a fight to preserve slavery, particularly when the bloodshed in the conflict was primarily by the worker class, by persons who owned no slaves. It is time to remove the symbols of glory given to the leaders of the fight to enslave human beings. I ask all citizens who are troubled by this issue to stand behind the eyes of our citizens of color. Now, from that perspective, what do you see when you look at a statue of a general who tried to keep your ancestors enslaved? What do you see when you see chanting, torch-carrying white men carrying the Confederate battle flag? Now, come back to your perspective: How does the removal of these symbols of a slaveholding society keep you from being proud of who you are?
It is time for all of us to stand for the principles set out in our Declaration of Independence, that ALL men are created equal. It is time that, as loyal and patriotic Americans, we show the evil and criminal and un-American KKK, Neo-Nazis, and those who see all except whites as sub-human, that we don’t accept their ridiculous and traitorous positions. It is time to put these people back in the shadows where they have been festering for many years.
The South is still a great part of this country, has provided many great leaders, musicians, writers, poets, and simply good human beings; it will continue to do so. But, the real South is not just our white forefathers, and plantations, and Jim Crow laws. The real South is all of us: People from every religion, every culture, every race, working and living together as Americans, creating a rich, diverse, and exciting blend of the life experience. We don’t need battle flags or statues to preserve our history or to give us the credit due for our contributions and our potential.
Franklin B. Reynolds, Jr., of Castleton, is a lawyer based in the town of Washington