On any given Saturday, thousands of people pass by “Old Joe” and never give him a second thought. But Gainesville’s monument to the Confederacy was the center of attention this weekend, the focal point of a demonstration, thankfully peaceful, geared toward having it join the rubbish pile of history.
In light of the tragedy of Charlottesville, Va., similar demonstrations are taking place across the South, where Confederate memorials can be found in both big cities and small towns, and throughout a nation still working to heal wounds from a war that ended 150 years ago.
Long ignored as symbols of a largely forgotten past, such monuments have come to be associated with the scourge of white supremacy that was responsible for one death and many injuries in Virginia.
Previous efforts to remove such memorials lacked the momentum to move to fruition. This time may be different; some are being removed by official acts, others vandalized or destroyed, all the subject of intense debate and fresh scrutiny.
For some, statues of Confederate icons are seen as monuments to racists’ ideals steeped in support for slavery, and should come down. To others, they are tributes to a war fought on Southern soil, memorials of ancestors who died in battle and the men who led them.
But it’s past time to quit romanticizing the Civil War, and present it instead in proper context. It was no political upheaval over states’ rights; it was a rebellion that led to more than 600,000 deaths, fought over whether slavery should be abolished, and the South was on the wrong side. That’s the story that should be told by memorials scattered across the landscape.
It’s important to acknowledge and remember history, warts and all, to learn from it and avoid repeating it, yet not by honoring the dishonored. The balance to strike is to reconcile these ideas into historic memorials that illuminate without offending.
Take the dispute at Stone Mountain and its carving depicting Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, and where much of the park’s land once was owned by a former Ku Klux Klan leader as site of regular cross burnings. State Rep. Stacey Abrams, a Democratic candidate for governor, wants to remove that image from the big granite rock.
Civil rights icon and former Atlanta Mayor Andy Young opposes that effort, saying, “I think it’s too costly to refight the Civil War. We have paid too great a price in trying to bring people together.”
He’s right. Such action would bring an enormous cost, money that could be used more productively than destroying a mere symbol. And when that image is gone, Georgians will still be as divided as they are now. Removing it would solve nothing.
Instead, use it and other Confederate memorials to explain why the war was fought. A prominent plaque in front of the mountain could read: “Lee, Jackson and Davis were key figures in the Confederacy’s rebellion against efforts to rid the nation of the inhumane practice of slavery. The Confederacy lost the war, and the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves and started the nation toward a goal of racial equality.”
Any statue or monument to Confederate valor should include such context. Rather than claiming it’s dedicated to “Southern convictions” and extolling the patriotism of Confederate soldiers, Gainesville’s Old Joe could serve as a reminder of the bloodshed in North Georgia over slavery, with the hope such deaths will never again be necessary to defend the sanctity of any race.
For every statue of a Southern icon like Lee, many others are dedicated to the war’s nameless foot soldiers. Old Joe is such a monument, on land owned by Hall County and leased to the Daughters of the Confederacy, who maintain it.
It’s fair to distinguish between the men who instigated the Civil War and those who fought it. Confederate soldiers were seldom slave owners; most merely felt they were defending their homeland from invaders. Historian Shelby Foote told of one Rebel soldier, when asked by Yankees surrounding him why he was fighting, replied, “because you’re down here.”
Most of these statues have been in place for decades. They denote sentiments of a time long past, many erected while survivors of the Civil War still lived in the communities where they stand. They were meant to be memorials to sacrifice, not monuments to white supremacy.
Yet if any are to remain on public ground, they should be accompanied by educational materials that put the conflict into realistic perspective. If not, they should be removed to private property, cemeteries, history centers or museums, such as Gainesville’s Piedmont Hotel once owned by Confederate Gen. James Longstreet.
Destruction should be a last resort; they are still a part of our nation’s history and can help tell the story of a time that should never be repeated.
In a similar vein, there is no place for the Confederate battle flag on public property. It has long been usurped by those who wield it as a weapon in a war of racial hatred, and seen now as a symbol of “white power.” Those who feel it represents “Southern heritage” should find a better emblem, preferably from a more honorable period of history than that four-year stretch of madness and shame.
The South fought a war for the worst of causes, and lost it for the best of reasons. Continuing to relive it with discredited symbols glorifies that ugly period of history and brands their defenders either as the voices or the enablers of intolerance.
We can’t undo history but we can use it as a learning tool to remember why the war was fought and its after-effects by turning every Confederate statue and symbol into historic lessons rather than icons to white supremacy.
Only then can we hope to move on and address more substantive issues resulting from the nation’s painful history of discrimination.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; email email@example.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.