My guess is that all Americans can tell a story about race relations in America— especially that between whites and blacks. And I bet most of us have a view on how America’s racial history should be told, on what should be told, and on the proper place of monuments and historical artifacts in that telling.
I’m fascinated by where our personal stories fit within the larger narrative. And our personal view of monuments and artifacts. Would that we could have a non-emotional civil conversation about the past. But, of course, “the past,” as William Faulkner so famously wrote, “is never dead. It’s not even past,” making any talk about the Confederacy and its symbols fraught with raw emotion and more about us and contemporary racial tension than it is about any dead general memorialized in granite.
Last year, during my guest visit to a University of North Carolina geography class of all things, a Southern white male undergraduate asked me what I thought about removing Confederate monuments and place-names from the campus. The building in which we met had recently undergone such a name change, the story of which the University proudly displayed in the building’s lobby. The class discussion had nothing to do with monuments or history — it was about community and economic development — but nonetheless this fellow wanted to know my view. To this day, the University continues to be surrounded in controversy as it attempts to deepen and broaden the telling of its history, and remove tributes to a Confederate past. The young man wanted to know what side I was on: “preserving” history or “re-writing history.”
The year before, in a conversation about local monuments to Confederate war dead, an elderly white man with deep sadness said to me, “why shouldn’t my great-grandfather’s sacrifice be remembered in the public square? Didn’t his life mean anything?”
My perspective — which has evolved and changed over time — on the telling of our common story and what sacrifices we should commemorate has been shaped over a lifetime of living in small towns and urban space in the Deep South and by reading my fair share of Southern history, slave narratives, Southern politics and Southern literature, Faulkner and Richard Wright, Walker Percy, Ernest Gaines, and Flannery O’Connor alike. A life of informal and formal study. Central to all of it is the inextricable tie between black and white lives, past and present, and who’s painted as a hero or a villain.
Although my story begins in the Heart of Dixie, my white Southern roots are shallow and do not extend to white Confederate soldiers, unlike the young student and the old man. My paternal great-grandfather was an officer in the Irish Army who immigrated in 1860 and joined the Rhode Island cavalry. He was, I believe, a mercenary, one who fought for the Union but was “cashiered out” after a drunken incident while on maneuvers in Louisiana. Court-martialed. During the height of the Civil War. No hero he.
I came of age a full century after his war-time service, in what at the time was a small cotton-producing town on the edge of the Alabama Black Belt—12 miles north of Montgomery, 30 miles east of Selma, 90 miles south of Birmingham—when disenfranchised African-Americans still picked cotton and gave their lives to end Jim Crow segregation laws and practices.
On a regular basis, at the time aware or not, I walked through a “whites only” entrance to our small-town hospital where my mother worked, drank from the “whites only” water fountain in downtown Montgomery’s Woolworth’s, swam in our “whites only” public pool, attended “white only” public schools, went to the “whites only” Dairy Queen, all while the woman who washed my clothes and made me a sandwich in the afternoon rode in the back seat of the car as my mother and I — a child — sat in front. All, all because Pinky Mae Harrison and her kin had black skin while I and mine had white.
My teen years were years in which violence played out in the public square, framed by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church; a race riot in my small town; Freedom Riders bombed in Anniston and beaten in Montgomery; Governor George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door of my future alma mater; Sheriff Bull Connor’s attacks on African-American demonstrators in downtown Birmingham, many of them children; the Selma March; the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and my personal experience navigating race relations through my high school senior year, one in which my county high school was fully racially integrated by federal court order. Senior year ended with a racial stabbing that interrupted my high school graduation ceremony.
Jim Crow was coming to a violent end; I was coming of age.
Fortunately, the Jim Crow era and the violence that sustained it were captured on film and in museums — among them the Birmingham civil rights museum and the Legacy Monument and slave museum in Montgomery. Images and artifacts from the past make our denying what happened impossible, and they allow me personally never to forget the horrific treatment of black Americans by Klan-riders, condoned and enforced by the State of Alabama and supported, ignored, or excused by the white establishment. And no doubt enforced by the white state police and local police departments.
For those of you who don’t remember — and I say this because I’ve had friends and colleagues who did not grow up under Jim Crow segregation laws ask if the separation of white and black was as extreme as it was — you know, “it wasn’t really that bad” and “how do you know that happened?” — so let’s remember, state law and social mores enforced a rigid separation of the races. White and black children were prohibited from attending school together, from playing together; African-Americans were denied the right to vote — principally through poll taxes and literacy tests — ; blacks were jailed, beaten and murdered for daring to claim rights codified and protected by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; whites and blacks drank from different unequal water fountains. And when African-Americans attempted to enter a white Christian church on Sunday morning, they were barred. Black men were lynched for daring to look at a white woman — or being accused of looking at a white woman — in what an Alabama lawyer I knew called “reckless eyeballs.”
So yes, Jim Crow was that bad.
As I look back over the past 50 years since my high school graduation, I marvel at the progress the Deep South made breaking down social mores and attitudes that accompanied Jim Crow. But I am not naive about white backlash, and am shaken by images of young white men marching across the University of Virginia’s campus espousing white supremacy and the more recent murder of Ahmaud Arbery — hunted down by three white men some 70 miles to my north. These images take me right back to Jim Crow, a time of state sanctioned terrorism against anyone born with black skin.
It’s stunning to me now that these Confederate monuments exist at all, what with the Union’s winning the American Civil War. For Lincoln, the war that pitted American against American, family against family, was a war to preserve the Union and an idea — that America is a place “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Union troops won that war, and preserved the federal Constitution for another generation. One would think the victors would not have allowed the vanquished to erect monuments to their cause in the public square.
It’s as if the Southern rebellion states won the war. And in some sense, they did, aided and abetted by the Supreme Court 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, an egregious decision in my judgment which undermined the Union victory, legalized the separation of people along the lines of skin color, and delayed any hope for racial reconciliation and full citizenship for black Southerners by a century. And aided by the structure of the U.S. Senate and the machinations of the electoral college, which together give enormous power to Southern states, once in full rebellion to the very government they learned how to control. Of course, the Constitution itself was one big fat compromise between free and slave-holding states.
So what about those monuments, erected at the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow? What do they memorialize? And to whom? Monuments to a principled position about state’s rights and a courageous albeit white people who dared to rebel against centralized authority, or are they inherently racist, monuments to white supremacy and those dedicated to maintaining the enslavement of others? Are they both?
How do we tell our common story in the public square? What do we say about the Confederacy, slavery, slave rebellions, Emancipation, state’s rights, the Union?
Obviously, Confederate monuments mean different things to different people — a celebration of white supremacy and oppression to some; a nod to courageous ancestors and brave family members to others. The answer like beauty lies in the eye of the beholder
Keep them? Take them down? Contextualize them and supplement them? Personally, I’ve favored the middle ground: leave the statues where they are, contextualize their establishment explaining which people built them and when, build alongside them monuments honoring the lives of slaves and civil rights activists who dismantled Jim Crow— people who helped build this country and gave their lives to be full citizens.
Tell the whole damn story. The full 400 year history of American whites and blacks. Good, bad, and ugly.
But life is full of surprises.
Who knew that widespread dissemination of video showing black men dying at the hands of police would cause white Southern mayors and governors to remove Confederate monuments, some in the dead of night, and this with no organized white opposition? I find it stunning that my mayor — unannounced at 4 am one day two weeks ago — removed the statue of a Confederate general from the public square in front of city hall, this from a man who two years ago wouldn’t engage around this topic.
And doesn’t his action reveal some admission, that, yes, indeed, monuments to the Confederate cause in the public square are monuments to white supremacy? If not, why take them down now, at this moment, when the public is hyper-focused on the behavior of police officers sworn to keep the peace and protect constitutional rights and not on Confederate monuments per se?
The skeptic in me says it’s all about the National Football League. Despite the long violent struggle to create a more perfect union dedicated to the proposition of equal treatment under the law, all it takes in Jacksonville, Florida is an owner of a football franchise to say “Black Lives Matter” coupled with black football players leading a peaceful protest against police brutality, and lo and behold, down come Confederate monuments.
Something tells me monument removal doesn’t end the saga of what to commemorate in the public square.
It’s a worthy question: what should we celebrate?
Dr. Sherry Magill is a retired private foundation president who served Maryland’s Washington College as vice president and deputy to president Douglass Cater. She has degrees in American Studies from the University of Alabama and Syracuse University and serves on the Spy’s Board of Visitors.
Cover photograph by Gordon Parks