The proximate cause for the events in Charlottesville last weekend was the city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from what was once “Lee Park,” now “Emancipation Park.” The leadership of newly empowered white/racist organizations used this as an excuse to assemble and make demands in the academic home of the University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson.
The history of the United States is full of good and evil. The vaunted ideals of the founding fathers in 1776, “…we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” were tempered by the reality of slavery. They recognized the contradictions, and were haunted by them. It is no accident that the preamble to the Constitution contains that awkward phrase, “…in order to form a more perfect union…”
More Perfect: the phrase debated by every high school government class. It was the recognition by Madison of the contradictions of their situation. More Perfect: the concept that the United States, while based on the highest values, would have to continue to evolve to reach those values. More Perfect: setting the standard to achieve for America. Establishing the mission, the goal.
We have monuments to those founding fathers. The monuments reflect what they attained as they worked towards those goals. Those monuments are not to flaws, to bad decisions, to contradictions. They recognize that as humans are not perfect, neither were our founders, nor all those who followed. We recognize their dreams, goals and accomplishments, despite the flaws.
Washington’s home at Mt. Vernon is a clear example. A beautiful home on the banks of the Potomac, a clear escape from the wars and the politics. The key to the Bastille of French Revolution fame hangs above the stairway, a gift of liberty from Lafayette. And the slave quarters are around the side.
Slavery, “the serpent under the table,” was the issue that shaped our government. But it is simply re-writing history to say that this was a case of racists versus non-racists. Frankly, a vast majority of Americans of the time would be considered racist by today’s standards, including Abraham Lincoln. And that is the danger of applying the standards of today to the values of the past. By doing so, we deny the evolutionary impact of the events in history. We as a people and a culture have changed, and while we can regret some of our history, we cannot deny it, nor is it fair to alter it.
Having said that, the Lee statue in Emancipation Park was erected in the mid-1920’s, at a time after World War I when the United States recoiled from the world, and the power of the Ku Klux Klan was at its zenith. Only a year before, over 25,000 Klansmen in full regalia marched down the streets of Washington, DC. The Lee statue was less a memorial to the General, than a symbol for the empowered racists groups of that time.
In the same way, the historic battle flag of the Confederacy, the official flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, had been co-opted to represent the racist views of the White Supremacists and Ku Klux Klan. What originally was the rally point for those fighting for their friends, families, and state; has become the symbol of hate. We, as a society, should not uphold these symbols of hate, even if that was not their original intent.
Last month I walked the battlefield at Gettysburg. I saw the monuments and the graves of the many thousands who fought there, both North and South. The soldiers of both sides were fighting for what they believed was “their” country. While slavery caused the Civil War, to most of the soldiers battling at Gettysburg, it wasn’t about slaves, it was about country. Right or wrong, winner or loser, they still deserve to be honored there for the sacrifice.
We now have to distinguish between what represents history, and should be preserved, and what represents racism, and should be removed. It is important that we don’t erase history, and it is equally important that we don’t represent the old values that accepted racism. We have to also recognize what in our history has been co-opted into racist symbolism.
So we have a complex history. We have to do both, honor our history, and recognize our growth. We have to be proud that as difficult as it was, ultimately the United States freed slaves, and perhaps with even more difficulty, it is still working towards equality for all. We have to recognize the difference between the racism then and now, and history. We must still become More Perfect.