Van Ens: Leaving Confederate statues standing stains U.S. history
Should statues saluting Confederate generals be kept in place or moved for display in history museums?
Americans’ responses to this question depend on whether they rely on Southerners’ deceptive history about why the Civil War erupted or believe Southern whites raised monuments to suppress emancipated slaves’ struggle for equality after the War.
Toppling monuments glorifying Confederate War heroes corrects a false narrative about why the Civil War was fought. Most Southerners rejected the bitter fact that the Confederacy lost the war. To take the sting from their defeat, Southerners concocted a false narrative, asserting the war was not primarily fought over slavery. Rather, North and South battled because states south of the Mason-Dixon Line wanted to protect their rights from an over-reaching federal government.
Moreover, Southern historians pictured benign plantation masters including slaves as part of their extended families. Blacks’ servitude made them feel secure in an agricultural paradise where they had no need to read or write, declared Southern paternalistic masters.
By repeatedly reciting this false narrative, it seeped into the South’s identity, convincing the gullible that credible U.S. history was untrustworthy. These God-fearing Southerners avoided the Apostle Paul’s warning about having “nothing to do with godless and silly myths” (I Timothy 4:7).
Instead, they invented a story of how the glorious South prevailed after the war by erecting monuments glorying Southern generals, which symbolized white power over former slaves.
Starting in the late 1880s and gaining dominance during the next decade, Southern women raised money to erect statues, which honored generals who fought to preserve Southern states’ rights. These ladies felt threatened by how fast emancipated slaves achieved civil rights after 1868. Blacks won legislative offices, erected public schools for their children, and expanded voter rolls that placed them in powerful government positions over whites.
A backlash erupted against Black equality. Gideon Wells, a Connecticut politician who served in President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, expressed the racism prevalent in the North and South. “The Radical (Republican) policy is to proscribe (take from) the intelligent, the wealthy, the moral portion of the South, and to place over them the ignorant and degraded and vicious.”
“That yesterday’s slave laborer was today’s state legislator horrified many white southerners who refused to accept this extraordinary inversion of their by-gone [pre-Civil War plantation] world,” writes Ulysses Grant biographer Ron Chernow.
Consequently, Confederate monuments were erected in town centers “to glorify, promote and reinforce white supremacy, overtly or implicitly,” declares the National Trust of Historic Preservations. These statues reminded emancipated slaves to take orders from white superiors.
Defending the right to keep the Confederate flag and monuments, President Donald Trump echoes the South’s post-war racist creed. “At one extreme stands President Trump who has proclaimed himself a champion of the disgraced Confederate symbols and lashed out at all who would remove them as unhinged leftists out ‘to desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments,’” writes Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz in The Wall Street Journal.
This Princeton professor concludes, “His (Trump’s) ignorant rendering of history exalts the defenders of slavery who fired on the Stars and Stripes to instigate the country’s bloodiest war. He equates their treason with American valor.”
Using patriotic theatrics, President Trump performed before Mount Rushmore on July 3. Although never mentioning the Confederacy by name, the president sided with those who say that toppling Southern statues assaults traditional American values. He scolded “a left-wing cultural revolution (that) is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.”
Then the president hurled a salvo, claiming, “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, (which for Trump includes defending the Confederacy) defames our heroes, (such as Confederate generals) erase our values (including white supremacy) and indoctrinate our children. Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.”
On the Fourth of July amid patriotic music wafting over White House grounds and Washington’s Monument serving as a backdrop, Trump ratcheted up his attack of the night before. He questioned the motives of protesters who toppled statues of Confederate generals.
“Our past is not a burden to be cast away,” Trump defiantly declared.
What past? The president is right that our national past should not be obliterated. But it is a past that tells the tragic story of how white people erected grand monuments to intimidate former slaves.
Our task is to remember how whites glorified the Confederacy in the Jim Crow 1890s. They stained America’s historical record, first vilifying and then lynching freed slaves who did not bow at Confederate statues.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.