August 20, 2017
I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia from 1996 until 2003, and attended the city’s Venable Elementary School from first through fourth grade.
I mention Venable Elementary because it is named for Charles Venable, who served on the faculty at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and as one of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s military aides during the Civil War.
It was the controversy over the removal of a statue of Lee from a park in Charlottesville that brought chaos, violence, and hatred to my former home town in the form of a KKK, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist rally and various counter-protests to the town this past weekend that continue to make national headlines.
I say various counter-protests because I think it’s important to draw a distinction between the violent anti-fascist and anarchist elements attacked by President Donald Trump Tuesday as the “alt-left” and the peaceful protestors such as Heather Heyer.
Heyer lost her life when a neo-Nazi slammed his car into her and other protestors. In addition to Heyer’s murder, police officers Lieutenant Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke Bates died responding to the violence when their helicopter crashed en-route.
The violence, carnage and hatred has stunned the nation, and is a sharp reminder that lethal racism, bigotry and prejudice still exist in America.
The stark scenes of neo-Nazis chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” as they marched with torches down the streets and fields I grew up playing on is chilling to say the least. Unfortunately, the KKK-like scene Friday night at the University of Virginia was just the beginning. On Saturday, the protests moved into downtown Charlottesville.
After the dust has settled from a violent and disturbing weekend and a week of introspection, the big question going forward is what should be done about Lee’s statues and indeed, all the confederate statues across the United States?
Statues may been seen by some as just marble, but they have long been seen as more than that. I can remember growing up in Charlottesville reading about the protests against putting a statue of Lincoln up down the road in Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy.
Lee himself recognized the danger, speaking out after the Civil War against putting up confederate statues by saying it would “keep open the sores of war.”
Yet Confederate statues continue to dot the South as reminders of the men who served in the Confederate army and their leaders, despite serving as painful reminders of a government and military that fought to preserve racially-based slavery. Many were put up long after the war not as memorials but as reminders of white supremacy.
Since the removal of the Confederate flag from the state house in South Carolina in 2015 (an event I attended), cities all across the country have re-examined whether and how the Confederacy should be represented. Should these monuments be seen as historical symbols for remembrance, or as statues honoring and glorifying men who fought for racist ideals?
Not to mention, there are Confederate generals and soldiers, and then there is Robert E. Lee. Lee is revered in Virginia, the state he chose to serve over an offer from Lincoln to serve as commander of the Union army. Lee’s birthday is still a state holiday in Virginia, for which we got off school.
In my personal opinion as the descendant of a Confederate soldier, Lee is the least morally repugnant Confederate general. But he is still morally repugnant, just like all the men who fought for the right for humans to own and abuse other humans. All these statues should come down.
These issues — the role of the Confederacy in our history, the role of race in our politics and our society and the role of our leaders in condemning racism and bigotry — are all intertwined.
Every American must wrestle with these issues, but those in southern towns take a special perspective and interest in them. It’s the reason why Charlottesville found itself in the crosshairs, and it’s part of the reason why the follow-up to this tragedy has continued the pain.
Charlottesville may be on the path to recovery, as students led a beautiful candle-light vigil to reclaim their grounds from neo-Nazis and the city has emerged as a community willing to stand up to bigotry despite a racist past. But the nation is still reeling, thanks in no small part to the president’s abject failure to address this incident appropriately.
Yes, Trump is right that their was violence on both sides of the protest. Yes, Trump is right that there are those on the left who are unfairly lumping in George Washington and Thomas Jefferson with Confederate leaders in wanting to see their statues removed.
However, despite owning a house near Charlottesville and claiming he understands better than the rest of us, Trump is dead wrong on everything else he has said related to this situation. No wonder Klan leaders and neo-Nazis like David Duke and Richard Spencer are cheering his remarks and CEOs and decent-minded Republicans are fleeing his side.
There is not blame on both sides, as Trump has suggested. There were no “very fine people” in the pro-statue rallies in Charlottesville last weekend. The neo-Nazis, KKK and their friends brought the violence and hate to Charlottesville they are solely to blame for the violence. The fact a president cannot condemn these groups is a new low in our political discourse.
Just because the president refuses to learn the lessons of the events in my old home town this past week doesn’t mean the rest of America has to.
Bigotry, racism, and hatred are alive and well in America and with the Internet and the rise of political figures willing to court their support, these evils very well may be on the rise.
The bright side is there are people willing to stand up against these forces. People like Heather Heyer, who gave her life. People like Susan Bro, Heather’s mother, now carrying on her daughter’s legacy by speaking out. And people all over the country who are willing to peacefully protest these evil forces and have these difficult conversations about race and American history.
I encourage Southerners and non-Southerners alike to hold elected leaders accountable on these issues, fight for the removal of these statues, and have difficult conversations on race. But take the time to learn the history, reject racism, and racist revisionism; as Susan Bro said to the president on television this week, “think before you speak.”
If we do these things, we can help to stop events like those in Charlottesville last weekend from happening ever again.
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared as an article on Quills & Crystals.