In his news conference Tuesday, President Donald Trump said there were some “very fine people” marching Saturday to protest removing a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, and implied he thinks the statue should stay. He’s wrong about the marchers, who were disgusting, but he’s half-right about the memorial.
We can’t understand our history by removing the symbols we have mistakenly honored.
On Sunday, in a Charlottesville, Virginia, park that a day earlier was the flash point of controversy and deadly violence, the statue of Lee at the center of the dispute stood, imposing and alone. At 26 feet high, 12 feet long and 8 feet wide, the statue of the general astride his horse is massive.
The fight is over whether the statue needs to go. But the question ought to be: What must be added to the display to correct the historical context?
Let’s not erase history as our understanding changes. Let’s illuminate history as our understanding changes.
If you want to argue that keeping these monuments is about “heritage, not hate,” you need to celebrate the heritage of the whole community. If you want to argue that removing such memorials covers up both the racist history and the racist adoration of that cruelty, then do it by showing the full truth.
The people in communities who want to keep their Confederate monuments need do only one thing to be worthy of wider support: Demand that a Vietnam Memorial-style wall be built alongside the Confederate statues and flags that lists the names of every single documented black person who was enslaved there.
Any of you devotees of history fighting for your statues want to take that deal?
In my hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, battles over the Confederate flag flying at the State House raged for decades. They mostly ended after the murders of nine black churchgoers in Charleston by a young white racist in 2015 finally shamed it down the pole.
In the South, the phrase “You don’t have to be a racist to honor our Confederate heritage and history” is dogma. And it is theoretically true. But you never seem to, in real life, meet anyone dedicated to cherishing Confederate heritage who isn’t a racist. Equality-loving lovers of the Confederacy are the Sasquatches of Southern politics, often talked about but never seen.
Understanding Lee is crucial to comprehending our history. His decision to turn against the United States and to lead the Confederate armies is at the center of a conflict that redefined the nation. But the continued adoration of him long after that war ended is crucial history, too, and it might too easily be forgotten if the statues are toppled. The Charlottesville statue was not erected until 1924, 60 years after the defeat of the Confederacy. That bears thinking about, and that won’t happen if the statue goes.
Even the current battle to keep such memorials intact without adding context is continuing evidence of deep-seated racism that itself becomes a crucial part of our nation’s history.
In 1860, there were 4 million slaves in the United States, humans owned like axes or plows.
They suffered tremendously, and had the same complicated emotional lives and desires and instincts we all do. They loved. They hated. Their stories deserve memorializing. Their struggles demand statues.
Our history deserves attention and even reverence. Our heritage does, too. But the true history and the real heritage of the South and the Civil War are not this facade they pay homage to. They are in love with a lie. Knocking down the statues, though, won’t correct the lie. It will merely make it too easy for us to forget it, or sweep it away.
Better to add in the facts, and tell the whole truth.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.