Buried in your news feeds has been the story of confederate monuments being torn down in New Orleans, Louisiana. It appears much of the focus has been removing statues that honored confederate soldiers such as P.G.T. Bouregard who fired the first shots of the Civil War on Fort Sumter. The Confederate States of America was formed from states that seceded from the United States of America after Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president in 1860. Although there were many issues economic and otherwise that divided North and South, such as protective tariffs that Northern Industry favored as opposed to the lower tariffs preferred by southern agriculture, the chief issue of divide that led to all others was that of slavery. Yes there was a conflict between states rights versus federal power, but the apex of that debate had to do with the existence of slavery, and that of African Americans in particular. The Confederate government’s constitution was identical in almost every way to that of the US constitution, except for that guarantee of the perpetual existence of chattel slavery.
After the Confederacy lost the Civil War and reconstruction came to an end, Jim Crow laws that oppressed blacks and empower whites became the prevailing rule in the South, and even in much of the North. The South turned to memorializing its lost heritage, honoring their forebears with statues, street names, schools, flying the confederate battle flag, holidays, and other such monuments. Many of these continue in existence to this day, however many are pushing back on these. Last year, South Carolina ceased flying the confederate flag on state capitol grounds, which caused consternation among some, and celebration for others. Now we are seeing other actions taken place, such as statues and other monuments removed from public property in places like New Orleans.
In my opinion, much of this ought to be welcomed. For any virtues it may have had, the Confederacy was founded on one of the most vile institutions ever to besmirch the earth. For more than two hundred years African Americans were treated no better than cattle, and purely as means for the ends of others, having no value in and of themselves as human beings. For black children to have to go to schools honoring people such as the confederate president Jefferson Davis is simply unacceptable. This was a society built on the idea that the very people that attend those schools named after them are not full human beings entitled to all the equal rights and liberties that whites enjoyed. Such a society should not be honored, but should be remembered with sadness and shame.
Here is the crucial distinction I want to draw out from this. There is a difference between honoring, which has the idea of elevating something as being worthy of some good, and remembering as being an important part of ones past. We have to find ways of always remembering that part of our American heritage, without elevating it as praiseworthy. We need to have and preserve our battlefields and historical sites, so that we never forget our history, but we must not honor all aspects of that past. My own fear is in getting carried away in iconoclastic zeal and destroying all remembrance of our past. While no African American should have to daily go past a memorial to Nathan Bedford Forrest, we should not tear down a battlefield he fought at to make room for the next development or Walmart. We must always remember. It is part of who we are, and it is what prevents us from ever returning to that time. Finding and defining that line can be tricky at times and we must determine where the line crosses between remembrance and honor.
The line is not always so black and white. Robert E Lee was general of the army of Northern Virginia. He remains one of the most respected military generals in all history. Shortly after the war, he was found in an Episcopal church, kneeling to receive communion next to an African-American. Someone who represented something seen as monstrous, was also far ahead of his time, and should be emulated rather than cajoled. History is made of people, and people are complex, so therefore, history should be seen in that matter. It’s always easy to take modern judgments and apply them to people who we thought should have known better. But where are our moral blind spots? Our ethical quandaries? Two hundred years from now, what will those generations be saying about our moral failings? Much is made of Progress in history (that’s progress with a capital “P”), and surely in some areas we have made progress. But history is not a straight arrow. It curves and twists and bends and reverses. The arc of the mora universe may be long and bend toward justice, but if that is the case, it is not only long but jagged and crooked. (And for the record, I’m not even sure the arc of the moral universe does bend towards justice, at least to the extent that history is too complicated for such pithy idealistic sound bites. However, it at least does capture what we want to be true.)