The fact that the summer of 2017 was characterized by a Nazi-led protest is still baffling to me. Though admittedly I’ve lost a lot of respect for some of my fellow Americans in the past few years, the events of Charlottesville brought my opinion of them to a new low. The violence that resulted in the horrible death of Heather Heyer, followed by our president’s words in the aftermath and The New York Times citing his claim of blame “on both sides” of the protest, only added insult to injury. All of this came over the fight to preserve white supremacy through a national monument, and I can’t help but think that the ideals that that monument of Robert E. Lee stood for were not worth the death of a young woman, and, if things weren’t so complicated, are ones that should have disappeared with slavery.
At the end of the day, the Civil War was about slavery. Southerners will cite, as in an article by Vox, that the war was one fought over state’s rights and their want to govern themselves, but it was clearly over a Southern state’s right to reap the benefits of slavery. By extension, the Confederate flag is also not one of just “Southern pride,” but one that marks the South as a region unwilling to give up their white supremacy to join the rest of the country in slavery’s abolition and was willing to secede altogether to avoid doing so. Indeed, use of the flag made a decisive comeback in the 1950s as this supposed symbol of Southern pride, coming at the same time as President Truman’s historical site made strides forward for the civil rights of African Americans, granting them new protections under the law, according to PBS. Those who fought for the Confederacy and who support its values today don’t stand for American patriotism; they stand for the continuation of the status quo, for the protection of white supremacy and for the other racist sentiments expressed in Charlottesville.
In talking about the actual monuments now being removed, our president is one of many citing a “slippery slope” of this procedure, asking in a tweet that if it’s Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson today, will that soon mean the removal of statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as they were slave-owners themselves. This is often phrased as a ridiculous idea, as if the ugly past of America’s leaders is something that can be washed away in light of their nobler accomplishments. But there are a couple points that go along with that. Firstly, historical figures like Washington and Jefferson were not just known for their relationships to slavery like Lee was. This is in no way to excuse their statuses as slaveowners; by the time of Washington’s death, his Mount Vernon estate housed 317 slaves, according to the estate’s website, and Jefferson infamously raped Sally Hemings, a slave on his estate who, according to The Washington Post, bore six of his children. However, they fought for and led our fledgling country out of England’s control and to a place where we could govern ourselves. Both men made valuable contributions to our nation and its independence and aren’t universally seen as white supremacist symbols.
Secondly, there is concern that this erases our country’s history, and that we cannot learn from our mistakes if we don’t have public reminders of what took place, a sentiment that appears well-intentioned. However, our education of history doesn’t come solely from monuments; if we really want to educate people about the brutalities of slavery, put that information in history classes in school and make sure this is something that becomes common knowledge. And, if we’re so hung up on statues reflecting our nation’s mistakes so they serve as a reminder, why not put up statues of the slaves who actually endured the cruelties of slavery? Why do we need another statue of a white man to be reminded of a war that nearly tore our nation apart when we could memorialize those who were trying to fight for us to stay together, who stood for our freedoms? As different as their values were, America needs fewer reminders of figures like Lee and Jefferson, and more of those like Hemings who have been silenced for so many years. It’s long overdue for them to be heard.