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The United States’ controversial confederacy

(John Ramspott / Flickr)

Race relations and the rise of white nationalism are topics of constant coverage in today’s media. Following President Trump’s remarks on the mayhem in Charlottesville, national polling indicated that his approval rating had dropped from 44 percent the week prior to a now meager 39 percent. His decision to rescind earlier comments, following it up by condemning violence “on both sides,” was seen as both a diversion and a disappointment.

But in the midst of all this chaos, it’s easy to forget why the “Unite the Right” rally originally took place. White nationalists, along with others, were protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, erected in 1924 and centered in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park. In recent years, the statue has been understood as a symbol of racism and white supremacy. Yet still, 49 percent of Americans oppose the removal of Confederate statues, whereas only a third of Americans support the removal of such monuments. The divide is politically polarizing, with a recent poll showing that 71 percent of Democrats support removing Confederate monuments whereas over 80 percent of Republicans assume the opposite position.

“Unite the Right” was a rally that was protected by the First Amendment, accompanied by a permit registered with the city of Charlottesville, with the intent of defending Confederate ideology. White nationalists escalated tensions, eventually killing one person and injuring countless others. Bigoted speech should not be outlawed and is protected, but for every protest of nationalism there should be a counter-protest for racial justice. Such rights are emblems, not curses, to our democracy.

But it’s increasingly the case that many on the left have taken this issue one step too far. In a recent appearance on Charlie Rose, Rev. Al Sharpton called for the defunding of the Jefferson Memorial, citing Thomas Jefferson’s ownership and sexual assault of slaves as an emblem of white supremacy and an overall stain on this country’s conscience. Perhaps Sharpton should look past himself and understand the far-reaching implications of taking down statues that hold less controversy.

I discussed this with a friend of mine in New York City this summer, who said that the question we as a society should ask ourselves is not how many shortcomings these figures had or their overall racial faults, but rather how their one sentence biography would read. For Jefferson, while he did own slaves, it wouldn’t supersede his contribution as a founding father or as the principal writer of the Declaration of Independence. For someone like Jefferson Davis—southern Congressman, senator and President of the Confederate States of America for which there is still a statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection on Capitol Hill—his one sentence would be defined by slavery and succession.

Similar arguments have been made by less prominent citizens of the electorate, and when it’s not someone like Jefferson who is being opposed it is George Washington. The problem with engaging in the removal of statues beyond those of the Confederacy, or those of legitimate controversy like Stalin or Lenin, is that such discourse plays into President Trump’s comments following Charlottesville. During his press conference held at Trump Tower, Trump raised the question, “So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?” If only the fundamental difference was enough for the public to understand, instead of engaging in the President’s distracting behavior.

In the end, if any monuments are to be taken down it should be the ones of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. It can be understood that while they are important figures for which our citizenry should be well-informed of, having a statue up and continuing to bear their name sends a message of racial complacency and regression. The likes of Jefferson and Washington lived lives that ran counter to the vision of the Confederacy. Lives which helped, not hindered, our democracy.

With that being said, it is important to understand the fundamental differences between taking down Confederate monuments and Confederate flags. The Confederate flag is a symbol of hatred and white supremacy, in part because it symbolizes succession from the Union for the purposes of continuing slavery. In ways that are similar but not identical, Confederate statues do not transcend the times we live in like the few Confederate flags that fly over the south (the state flag of Mississippi still includes emblems of the Confederacy). They act more as a history lesson for where this country used to be rather than where it stands at the present time. If we are to believe that history should not exist in a vacuum, then perhaps monuments and statues should stay put, with continued erection standing not as an endorsement but of history itself; a continued understanding that the horrors that were carried out by these people remain recognized by the statue in place.

Isaac Simon is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at isimon@umass.edu.

Comments
3 Responses to “The United States’ controversial confederacy”
  1. william l rambo says:

    blacks need to know that my great grandfather fought in the Civil War. i support him this is just to close to blood

    w l rambo

  2. william l rambo says:

    no moderation is forth coming

  3. Nitzakhon says:

    Just remember, Democrats, the history of your party:

    The Inconvenient Truth About the Democratic Party

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