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Katy Burns: Revisiting American history, one statue at a time

  • A man looks up at the Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, Va., on June 7 following a week of unrest in the U.S. against police brutality and racism in policing. Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the statue removed. AP

Monitor columnist
Published: 6/28/2020 6:20:12 AM

Who would have guessed, less than a month ago, that a genuine revolution in cultural awareness and sensitivity culminating in the frenzied mass destruction of memorial statuary around the nation could have been ignited by one cold and callous white cop in Minneapolis who was videotaped strangling a man?

What happened was simple and odious. Derek Chauvin – then a white Minneapolis cop with a checkered job record – put all his weight on his knee and pressed it firmly into the neck of George Floyd, a Black man he’d arrested and had in handcuffs on the street, for nearly nine excruciatingly long minutes until the life ebbed from Floyd’s body. Throughout the grisly video, Chauvin stared arrogantly at a cell phone he knew was recording him.

Reaction to seeing a helpless dying man – played over and over in the ensuing days, seen by millions around the nation and the world – was immediate, visceral, and only grew as time passed. Across the country there were marches and demonstrations and outraged denunciations of racism.

Even the normally completely buttoned up Mitch McConnell, leader of the U.S. Senate and proud possessor of the most expressionless face in America, was moved to make note of the stain of our country’s “original sin” – the establishment and continuation for centuries of human chattel slavery, the buying and selling of men, women and children as if they were nothing but cattle.

Within weeks, outrage over that video led to deep dives into much of America’s less celebrated history, the one we normally pretty much avoid talking about.

And in particular about our country’s continued enthrallment with the Civil War which the North – that’s us – won definitively when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops and in effect the rebellious South to the victorious Union General Ulysses S. Grant. We kept the Union together, then came home, went back to work, to real life and to the future, which should have been the end of it.

But not for the South. The South went home and sulked for a generation or two before deciding to start a new war, a propaganda war, to convince everyone that it had in fact won the real war, for hearts and minds. It was a nutty idea, but the North was so busy working and moving on that it didn’t really notice – or care.

Within a generation or two of the South’s utterly ignominious defeat, the continuation of human slavery – which was, after all, at the heart of the war – had become infused, in the minds of its defenders, with a perverse sort of nobility.

It became the revered “Lost Cause,” celebrated by such organizations as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which was not even founded until 1894, nearly 40 years after the end of the war. The Daughters and their ilk particularly got into erecting memorials, plopping them seemingly everywhere there was a bit of unoccupied land.

Today – according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps track of such things – there are some 700 Confederate monuments spread over 31 states and the District of Columbia. That far exceeds the original 11 states that seceded and kicked off the Civil War. And virtually all went up long after the war’s end. (For the record, I’m pleased to note that New Hampshire does not have one.)

And the vast majority, according to Mark Elliot, a history professor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, between the 1890s and the 1920s, “match up exactly with the era of Jim Crow segregation.”

Commensurate with the monument building, the whitewashing of the war itself – pun fully intended – in popular culture grew apace, with the South depicted as a place of gracious and chivalrous white people served by cheerful Black people, culminating with the 1939 release of Gone With the Wind. Has there ever been a more romantic and tragic couple as Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh? I mean, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara? Or a kinder, more faithful servant than Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy?

And increasingly, at the heart of Southern revisionism was – and still is – the so-called Confederate battle flag and all it evokes in viewers.

It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s that the true nature of Black life in the United States began to permeate white consciousness. And the myth of the chivalrous, gracious South gave way to the reality of cruel segregation and enforced second-class citizenship.

And somehow the brutal murder of George Floyd focused attention on that ignoble history. A national revulsion grew. The nation finally began to turn its back on the Confederacy and all it stood for. And all that statuary was and is an easy target.

Monuments to Lee – who was, after all, a traitor – have begun to come down throughout the country. And other Confederates celebrated in stone have begun toppling or are being hauled off to warehouses and museums. And the righteous anger isn’t just reserved for them, as other less than noble personages memorialized in stone are being eyed as targets for removal. And we can hope that damnable flag follows them into obscurity.

Along the way, the righteous crusaders are, in the way of other righteous crusaders through history, not limiting their targets.

In San Francisco, Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus lost their homes. In New Mexico, a statue of a particularly ruthless conquistador came under fire.

Sometimes the righteous crusaders get it terribly wrong. In California, a statue of Grant was toppled. And in Madison, Wisconsin, a statue celebrating a Norwegian immigrant and abolitionist who died fighting for the Union in the Civil War was torn down, beheaded and tossed in a lake.

We here in Concord have a few statues ourselves, although presumably the crusaders won’t be coming after the likes of Daniel Webster. Still, in the future, it might be wise to follow the guidance of those who recently honored one of our finest governors, John Winant.

He is portrayed at ground level, a life-sized figure inviting people to sit on a welcoming bench. He is smiling, welcoming, unlike those marble giants perched high above the crowd.

And if worse comes to worst and some hitherto unsuspected moral flaw is discovered, he can easily be moved into storage.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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