“Let the dead bury their dead ...” starts one of my favorite verses in the Bible; it points to leaving lost things to themselves, let history be and move on. I am just into my 60s and my views on many things have evolved like many people’s ideas do over time. I am not religious, but was raised as such. I am not an expert on the American Civil War, but have always found it interesting and studied it some, respecting it and its participants as integral parts of the crucible in which the unbreakable bond between true Americans was forged. And I have said more than once, I am certainly very happy, since I love my country, the United States, that the South did not win or manage a draw in The Civil War.
I was quite young during the Jim Crow days of the South. I have vague memories of seeing “White Only” signs. I have used the “N” word. I remember wondering what would happen to our public swimming lake if blacks were to physically get in it, as if their bodies might actually change the water, and I remember repeating “JFK” with a clinched fist “Just for Kennedy.” Thankfully, one can, I think, evolve out of ignorance.
I have come to respect the notion stated by some learned black man whose identity I regretfully cannot remember, that “You cannot understand what it is to be black in America without understanding what it means to be white in America.” I rather recently grew aware and understood the notion for much of black Americans that the Civil War is viewed as God’s retribution on both the Southern and Northern whites for their devotion and complicity, respectively, in the founding, furthering and fomenting of slavery late into the life of this great country. This I now know was also Harriet Beecher Stowe’s belief.
I have only relatively recently, over perhaps the last several years, read “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” (slave narratives), “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “Twelve Years A Slave,” “The Great Escapes,” “The Colfax Massacre,” seen movies “The Help” and “Selma,” and viewed several recent DVDs on slavery and Public Broadcasting programs on abolitionists. Has this gotten me closer to the black experience? Slightly less than a man might fully understand a woman, but I am less oblivious to the history of black America.
I wonder on what side of the great dispute that tore American families apart in the mid-1800s I would have been had I lived in that time? Would I have followed my heritage (born and raised in south Alabama)? Or would I have been braver than that? Could I have been a rebel among rebels? I don’t know. Actually knowing the answer to that question is only slightly less plausible than deciding who is the better player, Michael or Lebron?
Many of the eventual soldiers and officers on both sides of the Civil War struggled with their own decisions about which side to join. Most did, as do most soldiers today and forever have done in wars -- they joined what they knew, their community, friends, family, and/or just went where they were forced by the aforementioned or their government. Their cause or their hatred for the enemy was not usually forged by ideals, as the poets and politicians would have it, but by the ravages of battle: lost belongings, lost blood, lost friends and kin.
So where do I reside in the neighborhood of debate on Confederate memorials and the Confederate battle flag? Are they to be preserved as memorials to bravery and heroism or banished to oblivion and forgotten as mockeries of freedom and democracy? Well, first let me reach for the lifeline: Blessed are the peacemakers.
I don’t think destruction of the memorials should be forced on the public, for therein lie many supporters of the notion that the memorials preserve history and heritage and heroism rather than promote an ignorant lifestyle, denigrate black human beings or stoke maniacal hatred. I do not think the destruction of the Confederate memorials will promote peace or further racial understanding and harmony but will serve to heighten the lost heritage hysteria and possibly stoke more fear among the “heritage” preserving segment of the public and be counterproductive to the understanding among races.
But what about public monies going to efforts supporting, preserving, housing, and promoting something that highly offends 30 percent of The public? Unfortunately there is at least another 30 percent of the public that sees the same “supportive” actions as the responsibility of the public. Do we really want to put this to a vote? Do we really need to throw the volatile grease of such a pre-vote debate and campaign on the divisive fires currently burning at this country’s core? To what end? So the victorious side could feel victorious? I think not.
I believe that rather than tear down memorials of any kind, whether they offend us or enthrall us, we should move to build new, and just as grand and glorious, truth memorials and raise new flags, if need be, to grace our public lawns and courthouse lobbies and capitol domes that give tribute where tribute is due and place the burning brand of shame where it should be directed also.
I know much of the brick and mortar of many of the fine homes and capitols across this country, as well as the South, were created and hauled and placed and maintained by slaves. Where is their monument? I know Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks saved our nation from falling deeper into shameful actions by their selfless countering actions. Where are their statues? I know there were lynchings across our land and riots where many blacks died by white men’s hands and would-be voters turned away by snarling dogs, water cannon and ignorant bands of people who could never more appropriately stand guilty of the verdict: “They know not what they do.” Where are the wailing walls, memorials, painful reminders in stone, both granite and marble, like the burning reminder, “Colored Waiting Room,” carved in Macon’s Terminal Station Wall?
These must be preserved and more memorials to truth erected -- lest we forget. New generations need to know. They need to remember: That the ruthless creature, hatred, is only caged in a flimsy human body, only skin deep. They need to know why minorities clamor for redress, glare with a wary eye, lash out when their young men die, strive to fit in, but refuse to give in, because those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it (another wise man’s words). Let’s not destroy, but build on the truth.
Robert Hadden lives in Lizella.