I believed Confederate monuments could be teachable totems. I was wrong.

The events of the past week have made one thing clear: Confederate statues must fall.

Activists toppled a Confederate statue in Durham, NC on Monday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jonathan Drew
Activists toppled a Confederate statue in Durham, NC on Monday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jonathan Drew

I was wrong.

I sincerely believed there existed a rational argument for keeping Confederate monuments bolted on their pedestals in Southern town squares. Of course, I understood that the statutes — such as the one memorializing General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia and at the center of last weekend’s deadly violence — represent a disgraceful and treasonous moment of U.S. history.

But I’ve argued for their preservation for just that reason. They ought to be statues of shame, a reminder to present and future generations of the wages for the false belief in white superiority. The racism of rebellious Southern states produced a bloody Civil War, leaving a stain that still lingers in our nation. The South’s Lost Cause, I wrote in columns and debated in public speeches, was a blot on this nation’s history; the monuments to it should be taught not as prideful 19th century memorials, but as disgraced symbols of the 20th century backlash to African Americans’ civil rights.

My opposition to removing the statutes extended to efforts aimed at unfurling the Confederate flags flying over state buildings — a long-running and largely unsuccessful movement that spontaneously gained momentum across Dixie in 2015 following Dylan Roof’s cold-blooded murder of nine black Christian worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. As sickened as I was by the sight of the 21-year-old white man posing with guns and the Stars and Bars in his Facebook photos found after the cowardly act, I held firm in believing the wiser course of action was to force a racially riven nation to stare into pitiful monuments of white superiority than to sanitize public spaces of its ugly history.

In fact, I expected that when confronted with an accurate depiction of history, every American would more fully understand the legacy of racism and how it continues to cripple our nation to this day. And, to be perfectly honest, I hoped for white Americans to feel revulsion and, yes, embarrassment, at the mere presence of the awful totems erected to glorify the villainous acts of Confederate leaders.

But I was wrong.

Just how wrong I was became crystal clear on Monday as I watched the president of the United States proudly glorify the Lee monument, equating it with statues recognizing the nation’s founders. “This week it’s Robert E. Lee,” Trump said Monday in an amazingly tone-deaf news conference supporting the white nationalists who rallied around the Lee statute in Charlottesville. “I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?”

Seriously? What hope is there for a teachable history lesson when our country’s leader boldly puts a rebel general who took up arms against the nation on the same plane as the founders of Colonial democracy?

As awful as it was for Trump to exhibit his ignorance of U.S. history and abandon any effort to demonstrate moral leadership, it was worse to see people such as former KKK Grand Dragon David Duke welcome and cheer the president’s comments. 

Yet more alarming was the GOP leadership’s reluctance to issue full-throated statements that publicly called out the president by name and rebuked him for expressing such divisive and harmful views. While a small handful of Republican leaders have done so, the vast majority remain silent in what I can only conclude is tacit, or cowardly, approval of their party’s titular leader as he gives wink-and-nod support to racists and white separatists. 

I hoped for white Americans to feel revulsion and, yes, embarrassment, at the mere presence of the awful totems.

Absent political leadership willing to stand in strong support of marginalized communities, individuals and groups are rushing to fill the void and to demonstrate opposition to the hateful racists and their symbols. On Wednesday, a public memorial service for Heather Heyer, who was killed last weekend by a white supremacist who ran her down in his car, evolved into an evening rally that included thousands of people gathering on the grounds at the University of Virginia. Similarly, about 2,000 people marched against racism, fascism, and Trump in Philadelphia, in what organizers called a “Philly is Charlottesville” march. 

No doubt spurred on by the violence in Charlottesville, municipal and state officials are acting to remove Confederate statues, markers, and memorials from public area. Notably, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered the removal of four Confederate monuments  in the predawn hours on Wednesday.

And, in my home state of North Carolina, protesters toppled a statute of a Confederate soldier that stood for nearly a century in front of the Durham County Courthouse. In that incident, several activists have been arrested for destroying the monument and Gov. Roy Cooper (D) has asked state officials to study moving all Confederate monuments from state property.

This is as it should be. Nowhere, save the small-minded communities dotting Dixie and misguided white superiority sympathizers elsewhere in the nation, honors people who mounted failed a coup d’etat. The lessons to be learned from the history of these monuments can best be taught in museums and history books, not in the public square.

I acknowledge my naivety in the redemptive power of shame to compel an understanding of the Confederate monuments as teachable totems. People like Donald Trump, David Duke, and those who march with white separatists have neither shame, nor an appreciation for history.

Confederate statutes and monument serve no purpose other than as a rallying point for people who share a belief in white superiority and harbor profoundly racist views. The events in Charlottesville and the national reaction proves this is true. So I must admit I was wrong and join with those who demand that all Confederate monuments across the land must come down.