One of the enduring images of the 2000s was that of American Marines purportedly helping a group of Iraqi civilians tumble the statue of Saddam Hussein at Firdos Square in Baghdad in April 2003. British journalist Robert Fisk famously described the scene as “the most staged photo opportunity since Iwo Jima.” Questions as to why the statue became a target for advancing military forces quickly surfaced. The answer was simple. The statue was a symbol of Hussein’s bloody regime. In advance of toppling the dictator himself, the statue was a stand-in for his ill-gotten power.
"When those opposed to bigotry and racism demand the removal of such monuments and markers, they affirm the values of those who fought to restore the Union and reject those of slaveholders and petty tyrants."
That moment has crossed my mind more than a few times since recent tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, when anti-racist counter-protester Heather Heyer was struck and killed by white supremacist James Alex Fields. Fields plowed his vehicle through a line of people protesting a demonstration of neo-Nazis, white supremacy, and white nationalist groups challenging the removal of a statue of Confederate War General Robert E. Lee.
In the same way that Iraqis and U.S. Marines saw Hussein’s statue as a symbol of a repressive regime, so too many African Americans and countless others see Confederate statues and the Confederate flag as monuments to slavery, racism, and a once-dominant system of American apartheid that continues to exert its influence on American society and culture.
To compare the leaders of the Confederacy to Saddam Hussein might be a bridge too far for some, who would describe Hussein as a clear tyrant and murderer of his own people. But slaveholders were also tyrannical, with the power of life and death over people classified as human chattel. They were enabled by a Democratic Republic that professed a love for freedom but fought for the preservation of human bondage.
At least two million enslaved Africans perished during the Middle Passage, to say nothing about the inhumane conditions they suffered in the United States under a sadistic system of violence and brutality codified by law, practice and custom. In the 1857 Dred Scott decision, United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote for the majority in declaring black people “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race.”
This was the America for which the Confederacy and its supporters fought and ultimately lost the Civil War. The statues erected to honor its leaders boldly and unapologetically represent these values, making them beacons for white supremacists who see black people, Jews, and other racial and ethnic minorities as inferior. At the start of Saturday’s demonstrations, so-called “alt-right” protesters loudly chanted, “Jews will not replace us!” They resurrected the Nazi cry of “Blood and soil!” and taunted Black Lives Matter and anti-racist protesters with the call, “Whose streets? Our streets!” They did this to defend statuary that celebrated those who personified white supremacy.
When those opposed to bigotry and racism demand the removal of such monuments and markers, they affirm the values of those who fought to restore the Union and reject those of slaveholders and petty tyrants. But these efforts are overshadowed by endless equivocation about the meaning of the Civil War and the problem of racism in America.
President Donald Trump crudely articulated that equivocation on Tuesday as he sought to lay the blame for the violence in Charlottesville on “many sides,” failing to acknowledge the deep historical roots of white supremacy in America. From the infamous Colfax Massacre in Louisiana in April of 1873 to the bombing of Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh in April of 1995 and countless acts of violence in between, white nationalist terror organizations have long represented the greatest threat to the safety and security of the American people.
There are no two sides about it.
Perched outside of court houses and in public parks, Confederate monuments and memorials legitimize violence and give hope to the perpetrators that they, too, may one day be memorialized for their twisted acts of hatred. On the eve of his execution, McVeigh chose the William Ernest Henley poem Invictus or “Unconquerable” to serve as his final statement. The poem, a favorite among white supremacists, is open to multiple interpretations; Confederate War memorials are not. They stand, plain and simple, as symbols of hatred and oppression.
Trump’s equivocation is America’s equivocation on the meaning of the Civil War and its aftermath, including the birth of Jim Crow segregation along with systems of state violence and extralegal terror to enforce it. As historian David Blight observed in his 2001 book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, the whitewashed compromise that brought the nation back together was based on a deliberate forgetting of the truth and the forging of an imagined narrative in which both sides took responsibility for bringing about the war and fought bravely and with honor to support their sides. This revision of history echoes in the President's ill-chosen words regarding the violence in Charlottesville.
In a series of tweets on Thursday morning, Trump denounced the calls to remove other Confederate War Monuments as foolish, expressing sadness “to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments . . . . You can't change history,” he continued, “but you can learn from it.”
Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
...can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
The President is wrong. You can preserve history without building or preserving monuments to hate. Confederate War Monuments like other controversial relics from the past have a rightful place in history books and museums. Commemorations in public spaces should recall the past and also provide inspiration and hope for the future. The battle over Charlottesville’s statute of Robert E. Lee represents the enduring question posed by that history, the necessity for Americans to learn to live together in harmony through acknowledging a racist past. This is not, as the President suggests, a battle to erase history, but one to affirm core democratic values that will empower and inspire us toward this far more pressing and important goal.
In providing verbal aid and comfort to the disciples of hate by failing to take a clear stand against racism and intolerance, Trump is acting as chief enabler, sculpting in careless words and actions his own monument to intolerance.