All across the South, statues to the South’s heroes of the Civil War are tumbling down in protest or quietly disappearing. We are living through the firestorm of Donald Trump’s thinly-disguised celebration of the moral crime and tragedy of white superiority. And we are being tested and challenged, once again – as individuals and a nation – fully and completely to live up to the liberating vision in whose light our nation was founded.
The issue is complex for me. On my mother’s side, the first Thomas settled in Maryland in 1651. The Thomases, for many generations, were aristocratic planters. They owned slaves. My direct ancestors, from Decatur Georgia, all fought – and many died – for the South. I have the family’s records and collection of faded daguerreotypes of men in grey uniforms: “Killed at First Manassas, age 17.” “Killed at Second Manassas, age 17 1/2.” “Killed Nov. 22, 1864, near Macin Georgia.” “Died in the attack on Ft. Saunders, Tennessee.”
My mother’s family moved to Plainfield, New Jersey, when my grandfather became President of U.S. Steel Products in New York; that’s where my mother met my father and I was born and raised.
I was raised a “Yankee,” but somehow, the old myths persisted. Maybe I made the mistake of reading too much Faulkner at an early, impressionable age. It wasn’t the “Civil War,” but rather “the War Between the States” (or better ‘The War of Northern Aggression.”) I grew up with the stories of how the family home in Decatur had been spared by Devil Sherman on his bloody, burning swath through Georgia to the sea. I read my great-grandmother’s diary of the war years. There’s nothing romantic about years of near starvation. And my father grew up in St. Louis in the early 1900s. He was serving in the U.S. Cavalry when the brutal anti-Black race riots erupted in St. Louis in 1917.
I have no explanation, therefore, given my family background, for why my two brothers, my sister, and I were all raised strictly to believe that you assessed someone’s worth by the quality of their character, not the color of their skin or the faith they professed.
Those values, paradoxically, came in large part from our parents. One story will suffice as illustration. When my older brother Ted was around 12 years old, he joined a Bible study group that included members from our lily-white Presbyterian church and an another all-Black church in Plainfield. They met at the homes of the kids’ families. When it was time for mom to host the group, she welcomed them with her characteristic Southern hospitality — and lots of cookies and milk. After they left, she remarked to Ted, “You know, this was the first time I can recall that a colored person (please forgive her phrase – she was raised in the South) walked through the front door of my home.” But what struck Ted was the feeling and message behind that statement. What mom was saying was “I’m glad. It’s about time.”
So I have a passion to understand the whole truth of important issues rather than the more convenient distortion of one polarized viewpoint opposed to another.
Why pull down the statue of Robert E. Lee?
I’m not writing to agree with Donald Trump about the Charlottesville riots. Trump has no moral, ethical, or intellectual center a rational, moral person could connect with. But the response to his assertion that “both sides share the blame” and his invention of an equally-dangerous “alt-left” should be a frightening wake-up call for us as a nation as to how rigidly, irrationally, and dangerously polarized we’ve become.
Germans had their own tragic experience with an earlier scourge of Nazism. They remember it, in order to ensure they will never repeat it. Chancellor Merkel couldn’t have been clearer. “The scenes at the right-wing extremist march were absolutely repulsive – naked racism, antisemitism and hate in their most evil form were on display.”
If the statue, and all the other mementos of slavery were merely a reminder of a part of our history that we have blessedly left behind, it’s hard to see the harm. And if they served as reminders of a tragic past we, like the Germans, need to forever acknowledge and then reject, so much the better. That was the prayer uttered by Lincoln in his second inaugural address:
“Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
But that’s not the intent of Trump or those who support him. They seek to restore white male supremacy of the law of the land in a dozen different ways. To my white, wealthy, Republican friends: I pray you will open your minds and hearts to the real story behind the health care mess, Sessions’ “war on crime and drugs,” Trump’s Wall, immigration restrictions, right to vote limitations, Trump’s Muslim terrorist paranoia, the push for exclusive charter schools – it’ a frighteningly big, all-encompassing list. And they all have the same aim. “Make America Great Again” is code for “Make America White Again.” Standing by and watching others put on the old hoods and carry the torches again is not a morally-defensible act.
Sadly, the statues and flags have become a rallying point and stimulus for the most loathsome members of our society championing the most loathsome of causes and our country’s saddest most tragic legacy. And their champion is our dangerously deranged president. You know, the one who claims he’s the “Greatest President Ever to Inhabit the Oval Office” (except for, maybe, Abraham Lincoln).
So now what? Again, I can find no clearer moral guide and touchstone than the words and prayer of the Real Abraham Lincoln as he closed his second inaugural address:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
The work is not finished. Robert E. Lee, and all my own ancestors on my mother’s side, fought with incredible courage, and endured unimaginable sacrifices, for a failed, monstrously immoral cause that needed to be utterly, irrevocably defeated. I can honor their courage while standing resolutely, implacably against what they fought for. It’s time for the relics of that cause to be put to rest. Sleep in peace, Bobby Lee.