One Brave Teacher and the Historically Worthless Confederate Monuments

Few teachers ever did as much for their students as Joseph DeLaine and few ever suffered as much for their efforts.

During my 14 years as a classroom teacher, I taught a third quarter research project on the American Civil Rights Movement, with students selecting different aspects of the movement and the events that sparked it, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Riders, and the murder of Emmett Till.

For these students in classrooms that have long since been integrated, the idea that students once attended schools that were supposedly separate but equal is quite the revelation. Students who walk down the halls each day, side by side, with students of different races and religions cannot imagine a time when African American students could not attend the same schools as white students.

The reason that changed was the U. S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision and one of the people who worked hard ... and suffered much ... to make that happen was Joseph DeLaine.

As I have listened to the arguments over the past few days about the continued existence of Confederate monuments on public land, DeLaine's story came to mind.

DeLaine, a minister, was also a teacher at the St. Paul Rural Primary School in Summerton, South Carolina, fought to give his students some of the same necessities that were automatically provided to the white students.

Since his students often had to walk miles to get to school, he fought to get the school board to buy a bus. The request was rejected. Even though African American students were by far the majority in the Clarendon County school, DeLaine was told that white parents paid more in taxes than the poor black parents and it would be wrong to require white taxpayers to pay for a bus for black students.

The idea of separate but equal was always a fiction. DeLaine knew that well. But he was worried about children getting sick walking to school in bad weather and being too tired to accomplish anything once they arrived.

Parents pooled their money and bought a second-hand bus, but it broke down on a regular basis.

Eventually, DeLaine worked with NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall to put together a lawsuit against the school district, Briggs v. Elliott. The case initially began as an attempt to ensure equal facilities, but evolved into a full-fledged attack against the evils of segregation and became one of the cases included in Brown v. Board of Education.

DeLaine, the teacher who fought so hard for his students, paid dearly for his efforts. Those who preferred to keep things the way they were and keep the students separate, burned DeLaine's house to the ground, vandalized the parsonage, and threatened his life in vicious, unsigned letters.

DeLaine finally moved to New York where he spent the remaining years of his life.

Though the decision to end segregation in American schools was unanimous, the Court did not demand that it happen immediately, only that it be done with "all deliberate speed."

That led to decades of efforts to keep the races apart. It also led a number of southern leaders, fearful of the future as symbolized by Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights movement, to begin building the mythology of a South where the Civil War was recreated as a battle against an overbearing central government and an effort to end the southern way of life. It was almost as if slavery had not played even a bit role in what was continually referred to as The War Between the States in those states below the Mason-Dixon line.

Demagogues stirred the voters with talk of preserving their "heritage." The media, as it was constituted in the '50s and '60s, became the enemy, spreading that era's version of "fake news," which both then and now can be defined as news that politicians with only a passing connection to the truth do not like.

Southern politicians said the media was stirring up the trouble. There would be no racial foment were it not for the media.

Another protest method devised by these southern leaders was one that had been used around another time of racial unrest in the early 20th Century- they began the process of erecting monuments to Confederate leaders, the people who had fought to preserve that southern heritage, the people who wanted to keep African Americans in their place.

Long forgotten Confederate flags suddenly became a symbol of that same "heritage."

The monuments, for the most part, had nothing whatsoever to do with history. Then, as now, they stood as symbols of a time when the American dream was an impossibility to those who were not born white.

The monuments to such men as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forest should be preserved, but only as artifacts of a time in which their ghosts emerged from the 19th Century to play roles in an attempt to preserve a Jim Crow heritage.

Put them in museums, not in prominent public places where they have the stamp of approval of those who cynically attempt to use what is left of a white supremacist ideology as the foundation for a political movement.

The pieces of sculpture serve as a testimonial to long dead Confederate officers who waged war against their country to preserve an institution that never should have existed.

In 2004, 30 years after his death, Joseph DeLaine was posthumously awarded a Congressional gold medal for his bravery and persistence in his fight for his students.

The greatest monuments to DeLaine's legacy, however, are the classrooms across the United States where black and white children sit side by side, preserving a legacy that has done far more for this nation than any Confederate general on horseback.

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