Opinion Columns & Blogs

What would Robert E. Lee do?

Should the Confederate monument stay in downtown Macon?

Macon residents share their thoughts about the Confederate monument on Cotton Avenue.
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Macon residents share their thoughts about the Confederate monument on Cotton Avenue.

If you had told me a year ago that I’d be writing a column about “white nationalism” today I would have had a hard time believing it. After all, the Civil War had been over for 150 years, the Civil Rights Act had been the law of the land for over 50 years, and our first African-American president was winding down his second term. And yet, here we are.

The violence in Virginia and our president’s bizarre “both sides are to blame” response to a neo-Nazi killing a young woman and injuring many others by running them down with his car makes it clear this is an issue that we can’t just wish away.

Before I get into the subject, maybe I should give some background on my own ethnicity. I am about as white as a person can be. I recently did one of those genetic profiles and found I am about 40 percent Irish, 30 percent Scandinavian, and 20 percent British. I can’t go out in the sun for 10 minutes without getting burned. I’m basically Casper, the not-particularly-friendly ghost.

And on top of that I was born and bred in the South. I don’t think I’ve even been out of Dixie for more than a few weeks at a time in my entire life. When you are raised here you are probably more conscious of your racial identity than people who are from other parts of the country due to all the history involved.

Despite all of that I don’t recall there ever being a time when I felt any sort of pride or even a sense of belonging associated with my race or the place I was born. Nor am I guilt-ridden over acts that my distant ancestors may have committed. My self-image is defined solely by who I am, what I do, and how I treat others.

Frankly, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people of all races, and I’ve not seen any evidence that white people are any better or worse, on the whole, than any other race. I have no desire to segregate myself from other races, especially not if my new neighbors would be the idiots who march around with swastikas on their clothes. I like the melting pot just fine, thank you.

But I am well aware there are a number of white people who feel their heritage is under siege. The removal of statues honoring Confederate leaders and soldiers who died in the war has upset more than just radical neo-Nazis and KKK members.

There are plenty of law-abiding average citizens in the South who believe that those who defended their homeland in the Civil War can be memorialized without honoring slavery and segregation, and they are offended by the current efforts to “whitewash history.”

A Confederate monument in Cornelius was vandalized Aug. 13, 2017, a day after violence between white supremacists and counter-protesters left a woman dead and dozens of people injured in Charlottesville, Va.

It’s interesting to note that Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Confederate commander whose statue was at the center of the violence in Charlottesville, was opposed to erecting monuments to the Confederacy after the war ended. He didn’t even want battlefields from the war to be marked and preserved and did not support the continued flying of Confederate flags.

Gen. Lee said that having such reminders of the Confederacy around would “have the effect of retarding instead of accelerating (the South’s) accomplishment, and of continuing if not adding to the difficulties under which the Southern people labor.”

Lee’s direct descendant, Robert E. Lee V, has stated that he would be in favor of moving statues of his ancestor from publicly-owned lands into museums, for much the same reason as his famous namesake. The great-great grandchildren of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis have expressed similar sentiments regarding monuments honoring their ancestors.

One would think their wishes would carry a lot of weight with people who want to honor their legacies. In a more reasonable world that would be the case, but there are a lot of angry, scared people in this country right now, and people aren’t likely to listen to reasonable voices when things are in such a state.

Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at fergcolumn@hotmail.com.