“The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the people were singing”
—The Band, 1969
Who would have thought that the symbols of “old Dixie” that had survived for a century and a half after the cause that birthed them came crashing down would be discarded like old furniture left on the curb, not in “the winter of ’65,’” but in the opening days of the summer of 2020? Consider the events of just 10 days in early June:
u The mayor of Richmond announced that he intends to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue, and one of Robert E. Lee’s descendants said he is all for it.
- Protesters toppled the statue of Jefferson Davis in the capital of the Confederacy.
- Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Gen. David Petraeus and the Senate Armed Services Committee called for stripping the names of Confederate generals off army bases.
- The Navy and the Marine Corps announced that Confederate symbols would no longer be permitted in public spaces on their bases.
- And NASCAR — NASCAR for crying out loud — declared that Confederate flags would no longer be allowed at its races.
Then things got worse. More monuments came down, including three statues that Gov. Roy Cooper ordered removed from the Capitol grounds in Raleigh. “Monuments to white supremacy don’t belong in places of allegiance,” Cooper said, “and it’s past time that these painful memorials be moved in a legal, safe way.” It is a measure of the (hopefully) changing public sentiment that there has been so little pushback.
Few national figures have spoken out in favor of maintaining the symbols of the Confederacy — with the exception of the current president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, who said at his Tulsa rally that decorated military leaders, members of a U.S. Senate committee, a governor, as well as two arms of the armed services and NASCAR, for crying out loud, are “trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments. Tear down our statues ... demolish our heritage.”
Where to begin?
First, taking down statues legally is not an attempt to vandalize, deny or erase our history. Statues are not about preserving history. History books are about preserving history. Statues are about honoring someone you hold in high esteem. The monuments to leaders of the Confederacy were not erected as object lessons to teach us about a shameful part of our history; they were erected to honor some of the people who were responsible for the shame.
The Rev. William Barber said of those who erected the statues, “They were celebrating the deconstruction of Reconstruction. They were celebrating the policies of white supremacy and that white nationalism had been reborn.”
Second, to desecrate means to de-sacralize or make profane something that is holy. It is an affront to all that is truly holy to hold up for adulation people who represented a way of life and a system of laws that desecrated the image of God in millions of human beings by treating them as chattel to be bought and sold.
Third, the “heritage” represented by the discarded symbols of the Confederacy amounts to no more than a short-lived would-be nation that was dedicated to the proposition that all people are not created equal and to a war it fought for the preservation of slavery, a war that, need I remind you, the South lost and that no one wishes the South had won.
We cannot choose our ancestors or the legacy they left us, but we can decide which parts of our heritage we honor and celebrate.
I choose to honor the Quakers who set up manumission societies all over North Carolina for the purpose of buying enslaved people, transporting them secretly to Northern states and then giving them their freedom.
I choose to honor the students from North Carolina A&T, Winston-Salem State University and Wake Forest University who suffered indignities and arrests to integrate lunch counters in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, igniting protests across the South.
I choose to honor two of our late local leaders, the Rev. Carlton Eversley, who was a persistent, powerful and eloquent voice for equality and justice in our community and state Rep. Larry Womble, who labored tirelessly on behalf of justice for people who had been victimized by North Carolina’s eugenics program.
That is a heritage we can be inspired and challenged by, a legacy that we can honor with our labor and our lives.