If the old slogan “Image is Everything” is true, the symbolism behind busts and statues and memorials to slave owners, Confederate slave defenders, and Jim Crow proponents are ripe for removal as the images amplify the lingering horrors of being Black in America.
(Statue of Robert E. Lee being removed in New Orleans)
I have spent the better part of my adult life arguing that these images belong in books and museums–not in our statehouses or on courthouse squares as places of honor for dishonorable men. Be clear: These symbols were erected solely for the purpose of defying a United States Constitution whose 14th and 15th Amendments were ratified in 1868 and 1870, respectively, to provide “Equal Justice under the Law” and the right to vote for recently freed Blacks.
But by 1885, each state of the former Confederacy began enacting Jim Crow laws that usurped those very rights for Black people. A usurpation that was shamefully upheld by the US Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, a ruling that set the stage for Black people to remain second class citizens–by law–until well into the late 1960s. It was during this time that the earliest monuments were erected–monuments to remind Black people that they were still considered property and less than human in the eyes of their white “neighbors.”
Even when the Brown vs Board of Education decision overturned Plessy in 1954, Southern segregationist remained defiant and for the states that had not already placed the Confederate Stars and Bars into their flags in the early 20th Century, others did so as a sign of terror for Black people who knew that the Ku Klux Klan flew this flag when they lynched Blacks by night, and that the mayor, district attorney, and governor flew it as they terrorized Blacks by day.
(Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett at an Ole Miss football game the week that James Meredith, a Black man, was denied enrollment)
Lest we forget that those Southern segregationists fought intergration even into the 1970s in some areas, and with each statue of a Robert E. Lee, or school named for Jefferson Davis, park named for Stonewall Jackson, or statue of the first Grand Dragon of the Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, one that was hoisted in Nashville in 1978 (when I was almost seven years old), is a reminder to Black people that while the North may have won the Civil War, that the South had won the peace and that the descendants of those slave owning and Jim Crow terrorizing whites were still in control and prepared to maintain the racist social order in perpetuity.
And make no mistake–there is a direct correlation to public policies enacted across the South (including Washington) in statehouses and courthouses that honored the Confederate dead, and every single problem that still plagues the Black community. Disparities in health care, education, housing, and wealth are due to the fact that Black progress by and large has been impeded since the end of Reconstruction in 1877 by the white power structure. These problems are not because Black people have been “lazy” or “criminally predisposed” as an oft racist media have suggested throughout the past 155 years after the Civil War ended, but because the white political and legal system has had its knees on the necks of Black people during this same time span.
So yes, I applaud the statues and Rebel themed state flags being removed to museums where they belong. I concur with efforts to rename buildings and programs at schools like Clemson University, one whose dominant and predominantly Black football team attends classes and plays on the very plantation that Vice President John C. Calhoun owned their enslaved ancestors while defending the savage system in our nation’s capital that is named for another slaver, President George Washington. I have called for my law school alma mater, the University of Florida, to remove the name of segregationist Senator George Smathers from its expansive library, as Smathers was so committed to the cause of legal separation of the races that in the mid-1960s, he offered to pay the bail of Dr. Martin Luther King, the most famous alumnus of my undergraduate alma mater Morehouse College, if King promised to leave Florida and never come back!
Indeed, it is perverse that in 2020, the Navy and the Marine Corps are just getting around to outlawing its members from displaying the Confederate Battle Flag. A flag of a rebellion that waged war against the United States–a flag that one of its chief proponents, William Thompson, wrote in an 1863 Savannah Morning News editorial about its purpose: “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race: a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause. Such a flag would be a suitable emblem of our young confederacy, and sustained by the brave hearts and strong arms of the south, it would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized world as the white man’s flag.”
The Confederates knew that for which they fought–to continue slavery unabated in perpetuity for millions of Black people in America. Such renders arguments that the flag is one of “Southern heritage” and not racism historically inept and ultimately moot. The heritage of that flag, and the symbolic images of those who fought under it, are visceral reminders of a horrific past that while worthy of study, has never been worthy of reverence for a multi-cultural South and a diverse America that becomes more diverse each decade. Thus the need to remove the honor that these symbols receive on public properties supported by taxes paid by descendants of slavers and the descendants of the enslaved.