OPED: Put the Confederate past where it belongs

Yohuru Williams
Tribune News Service

When New Orleans officials removed the statue of Louisiana native son and Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard on May 17, they took an important step toward redressing the lingering national shame of honoring those who fought to defend slavery in the United States.

FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016 file photo, a state flag of Mississippi is unfurled by Sons of Confederate Veterans and other groups on the grounds of the state Capitol in Jackson, Miss., in support of keeping the Confederate battle emblem on the state flag. Some black Mississippi officials say they are boycotting a regional legislative meeting that their own state is hosting, which meets July 29-Aug. 2, 2017, in Biloxi, to protest the Confederate battle emblem on the state flag. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

But opposition to the removals revealed deep bigotry as well as a serious misunderstanding of why the monuments were erected in the first place.

A statement from a preservation organization known as the Monumental Task Committee stated, "It took 22 years to raise the funds and build the Beauregard Monument." It cited the words of A.B. Booth, the Beauregard Monument Association's secretary, who spoke to some 2,000 people attending the dedication in 1915. The statute, Booth proclaimed, was "not to stand as an advocate of war," but to honor Beauregard's "duty and true patriotism."

But that is only half the story. The Beauregard Monument Association was actually a subgroup of the New Orleans United Daughters Confederacy, a group committed to preserving the traditions and legacy of the Confederate South.

In fact, the presence of the monument, and others like it in the states of the Old Confederacy, represents the deafening silence and continuing reverberations of America's original sin — chattel slavery. That system birthed our enduring problems of racial inequality in America today.

No matter how artfully apologists attempt to promote a romanticized Southern heritage, the Confederacy waged war on the United States primarily for the preservation of slavery. In defense of secession, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens proudly declared that the new Confederate government rested on "the great truth" of black racial inferiority.

For legal purposes, the Lincoln administration chose to call the hostilities a rebellion — but it was without question a war over whether the nation could remain, in Lincoln's immortal words, "half slave and half free."

The dispute over the meaning of Confederate symbols, including the Confederate flag and monuments to Civil War generals, is decades-old. But the brutal massacre of black parishioners last June at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., pushed the issue into the mainstream. The grotesque symbol of the Confederate flag flying high, as state law required, alongside the U.S. flag at the state capitol lowered to half-mast to honor the dead massacred by a homicidal white supremacist, was simply too much.

The Confederate flag, monuments and memorials are not harmless remembrances of an honorable war, but of our deepest shame as a nation. They perpetuate an acceptance of the long, ugly history of racial oppression, in spite of emancipation that followed it. They are symbols of hate, representative of an inglorious past built on the immoral underpinnings of racial slavery.

It is time to remove these monuments and put them in spaces like museums that preserve the full story of slavery, where they can foster honest and frank conversations. Maintaining an idealized representation of the past does nothing to lift up the values at the core of our democracy.

— Yohuru Williams is an education activist, author and professor of history at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn.