“I advance it therefore as suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind." – Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
I’ll never forget the first extended Helligar family road trip. All six of us squeezed into our new 1978 Ford Thunderbird and commenced the eight-hour drive from Kissimmee, Florida, to Atlanta, Georgia. My most indelible moments that weekend in the Empire State of the South were the ones I spent staring at the much-larger-than-life-sized carvings of Confederate States of America leaders Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis on the geological wonder that gives Stone Mountain Park its name.
At 9 years old, I didn’t fully grasp the historical or symbolic significance of the Confederacy memorial. I certainly didn’t realize that the founders of the second Ku Klux Klan had financed it in 1915. I was obsessed with U.S. Presidents, though, and since the tour guide described it as the Mount Rushmore of the south, I was duly impressed.
Nearly 40 years later, any childhood awe I once felt has long since evaporated. I now see the Confederate triumvirate branded on Stone Mountain for what it is, garish low-relief sculpture glorifying a most shameful and regrettable era of U.S. history. But should we grind Stone Mountain to dust, or at least obliterate the controversial image carved into it?
That’s a tricky question that’s more relevant than ever with the most openly racist man since 17th President Andrew Johnson (Abraham Lincoln’s almost-impeached successor) living in the White House. The Confederate flag has been a point of contention for as long as I can remember, reminding us that Southern pride (and racism) still burns as brightly as Atlanta did in 1864. Now, as Confederate monuments are being torn down from sea to shining sea – both legally and illegally – in an attempt to de-glorify the Civil War’s would-be upholders of slavery, the South’s white-supremacist faction has risen again.
The resurgence of the alt-right worries me more than the statues do, and recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, justify my concern. Neither the statues nor the men they honor are the problem, or even at the root of it. The men and women who worship them are a far bigger threat, to both the moral fiber of the country and to actual lives.
Those black-and-white musings of Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia is a point of view that is still more prevalent in the U.S. than most of us would like to admit. The sentiments of the third U.S. President and author of the Declaration of Independence (”All men are created equal”? Um, OK), passed down from generation to generation, are far more dangerous in 2017 than reminders that men like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis once walked the earth.
I understand the impulse to annihilate perceived tributes to the U.S.’s racist past, but we’d have to go so much further than Confederate statues and monuments to accomplish that. Even if we choose to overlook the slaveholder status of George Washington and Jefferson, and ignore that the racism and negligence of our founding fathers, whose actions and inaction regarding slavery paved the road to the Confederacy nearly a century later, there’d still be so many pro-Dixie remnants to crush.
Do we turn on Dixie-glorifying art? Do we ban Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” “I Wish I Was in Dixie,” and Johnny Cash’s “The General Lee,” shun everyone associated with the Confederacy-glorifying The Dukes of Hazzard (the TV series Cash’s 1982 hit rode in on) and the 2005 film it inspired (bye bye, Jessica Simpson!), and expunge Stonewall Jackson, the late singer, from country-music history? He was named after the other Confederate general, making him a once-living monument. Do we destroy all literary and cinematic copies of Gone with the Wind because it glamorizes Confederate life and is “racially insensitive” and rescind its eight Oscars? Hollywood was doing “racially insensitive” long before GWTW (see 1915’s The Birth of a Nation – or rather, don’t), and it’s been doing it regularly since.
Do we then turn our attention to the nation’s still-existing plantations, the actual scenes of the crime against humanity that was slavery? When I was younger, my mother used to say she could never live in a place with “Plantation” in its name. Don’t laugh. They were everywhere. There’s even a Plantation, Florida.
Should we flatten all of the remaining plantations for the centuries of cruelty and oppression they represent? Do we then boycott all movies starring Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively because they got married on one? Do we just keep bringing down racism reminders until we’re left with mostly flat earth?
We can’t retcon American history by removing evidence of what actually happened. There’s no escaping that it was founded on the exploitation and massacre of men, women, and children who committed the sin of not being born white. There are reminders everywhere, not just in those Confederate monuments. Blacks in America are still paying for the “sins” of their forefathers.
Destroying monuments won’t grant us absolution, especially not with President Donald Trump in the White House. We can’t wash away the sins of our country’s past while its present is being guided by a racist would-be despot. It’s almost like we’re focusing on monuments because we can’t (or won’t) get rid of the real threat.
Many of the politicians speaking out against Confederate symbols serve states that are responsible for electing a President whose platform was really “Make America hateful again.” Southern leaders like New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Lexington, Kentucky Mayor Jim Brown can call for the descruction/removal of Confederate statues, but those are ultimately meaningless gestures unless the country’s leaders finally unite and boldly denounce Trump and everything he stands for.
Forget about the statues and enlighten the electorates. Rather than spending – wasting – millions on demolishing physical reminders of embarrassing history, why not put that money to better use? Why not spend it on providing assistance to those who continue to be affected most by the country’s legacy of racism, slavery and disenfranchisement?
Trump’s refusal to denounce the alt-right outright is a slap in the face to anyone who has ever been punished for not being born white, straight, and male. It stings more than tributes to dead men who fought for slavery. It’s not these deceased antiheroes who are causing the U.S. to revert to the shameful ideology of its past but a living one whose racist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic rhetoric has fanned the flames that currently engulf the country.
I will never be comfortable with those Confederate statues, but obliterating them won’t put me at ease. With or without Robert E. Lee standing tall in the town square, we’ll still have white supremacists, people who think “White Lives Matter” is a justifiable reaction to “Black Lives Matter,” and Trump. We can remove every trace of the Confederacy from our public spaces, but as long as we’ve got Trump, our past will continue to compromise our present and threaten our future.