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A time for monumental change

June 17, 2020

“As time passes, people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified institutions which acknowledged the right of property in man.” – Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant.

 

I am a Son of the South, steeped in Lost Cause mythology.

 

When William Faulkner wrote in his 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust that there is a point, at age 14, when every Southern boy imagines himself at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, with Pickett, about to make that charge … with the outcome hanging in the balance … well, that was me.

 

I’ve read books on every major battle and biographies of every Confederate leader, including Douglas Southall Freeman’s four volume R.E. Lee.

 

I’ve visited Monument Avenue in Richmond, the Confederate White House, Appomattox, and the Vicksburg and Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville battlefields, among others. I’ve stood next to Stonewall Jackson’s deathbed.

 

If the allegiances formed during childhood were wholly one-sided, my family history is more complex. My great-great-grandfather was a slaveholder. Another more prominent ancestor served as a Confederate congressman and in Wheeler’s cavalry. These are all on my father’s side. My mother’s side of the family came from East Tennessee, where Union sympathies were in opposition to the landed Southern gentry. My Fox ancestors supported the Union.

 

My uncle Acie remembered as a boy sitting quietly and listening to the old Civil War veterans reminiscing at a neighboring home. He told me he only wished he had listened more intently and remembered the things they said. Me, too.

 

As I grew older, I considered joining the Sons of Confederate Veterans. But I also became interested in civil rights, largely, I believe, because of the influence of my mother’s teaching and her Christian faith. And I began to read and hear other voices: The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the writings of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. touched my soul. So did my relationships with people who were not like me and had different experiences and backgrounds –  those, for example, who did not grow up in all-white town where “Dixie” was the high school fight song.

 

Perhaps I was only becoming more aware of my divided self – that like my family tree and the history of our country, there is a battle for the soul, and for a meaning that unites and endures. And like the chant being heard in protests now around the country, without justice, there is no peace. I don’t know if there was a particular moment when I changed, but there is a symbolic one – some years ago, when I took down a large battlefield painting of Gen. Lee from my home office, boxed it up and put it in storage, determined never to display it again.

 

Five years ago, I attended my first Black Lives Matter march. I wrote about it here. This summer, I have been to two more marches in the North Texas town where I now live. But I have been wondering, considering where we were as a society five years ago and where we are today, is anybody listening?

 

The most recent event I attended was the smallest, maybe 50 people or so, mostly African-American and organized by the local NAACP. The main speaker told a heartrending story: the lynching of her brother in another Texas city – in 1977. Others spoke of the need for more African-American police officers and for a movement for equality in our city, which largely remains segregated, separated by a railroad track dividing black and white.

 

One of the comments I have not been able to put out of my mind was a heartfelt request for the city to pave main thoroughfares on the east side of our community like they are in white areas. In 2020, in my North Texas city, legally sanctioned racism no longer remains, but justice is still denied to many of our citizens.

 

One other thing came up during this rally. Standing in the shadow of our historic courthouse, a few feet from a towering 1912 monument of a Confederate soldier, some said it was time for the statue to come down.

 

Out of all that was said that day, this may have been the only thing that many in our white community heard.

 

Today, I learned of a petition on change.org with close to 3,000 signatures of people who want to “save the monument,” saying it is part of “healing the wounds of the Civil War.” Some of the comments are outright racist, but most simply say that to remove the statue would be to obliterate history.

 

I would have been sympathetic with that point of view at one time in my life. No more. But if we are about saving history, we should at least know what history is being saved.

 

Like many other statues that glorify the Confederacy, this one was erected long after the war. It was placed in the center of town by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It stands to glorify slave-owning society and as a symbol to guard against African-Americans seeking too much freedom. Most all of these Confederate memorial statues were placed during the Jim Crow era and at the height of lynchings across Texas.

 

The history this soldier represents is found in the context of the times: Just a few years before, Isaac Bruce was confined just a block or two away in the basement of the jail after narrowly avoiding being lynched in nearby Hill County, where he was accused of raping a white girl. Evidence showed that Bruce did not commit the crime and that he was wrongly convicted. The governor acted as Bruce awaited his hanging in Hillsboro – but only to commute his sentence to life in prison instead of death. He was later pardoned and returned home to Waxahachie. Bruce’s life was in danger as long as he was held by authorities. Lynching was an accepted practice at the time, with at least 468 people lynched in Texas between 1885 and 1942.

 

Four years after the local Confederate monument was placed, and 70 miles to the south in Waco, 17-year-old farmhand Jesse Washington was dragged from the courthouse after being convicted in the rape and murder of the wife of his white employer. He was paraded through the streets while being stabbed and beaten, before being castrated. He was lynched in front of Waco’s city hall in front of 10,000 people, including city officials and police.

 

A 1929 editorial in my local newspaper– 17 years after the erection of the monument – lauds a lynching in Eastland County a day earlier. It defends the practice of lynching, saying that “Northern writers who hate the South likely will rise and give vitriolic denunciation to the lynching of Marshall Ratliff yesterday. They will froth at the mouth and score, censure, excoriate and pound out diatribes against us for taking the law in our own hands.”

 

When someone’s family is concerned, the newspaper said, “he cares not whether a lynching be anarchy or not. When one’s daughter or womanfolks are victims of a fiendish black or licentious white, he is afraid to risk the courts – he wants SPEEDY JUSTICE, right now, pronto!”

 

Confederate monuments, along with thousands of pages of Lost Cause mythology written after the Civil War, are not history but propaganda meant to justify white supremacy and falsely attribute noble causes to the rebellion. There is no one alive today who is mourning the loss of a Confederate ancestor. If there were mourning, it should be for the shameful cause that brought the South to arms – keeping black people in chains. These monuments were erected later to keep those chains on tight.

 

I’m not “PC.” I love history. I don’t want to ban movies or books. But if we want to “save history,” we should know what history we are saving. Confederate monuments are more a reflection of the times when they were erected than of the soldiers they allege to memorialize. And their presence in prominent public spaces has stood guard over injustice for generations. Put them in a museum with accurate historical interpretation.

 

For years, I have attended our community’s Fourth of July Parade. One year I began to look around and note the lack of black faces, even though our city has a significant African-American population.

I wonder if that is due to our celebrating, and lamenting, different histories.

 

Our souls are divided, and now the soul of the nation is at stake.

 

Generations of white Southerners like me have been heavily influenced by a romance for the War Between the States that has blinded us to suffering and injustice. Now is the time to listen to voices that have long been suppressed and to seek a unity with meaning that can bind all Americans.

 

Hire black police officers.

 

Reform police practices.

 

Seek equity for all.

 

Pave the roads.

 

Do something.

 

Our largest and loudest response as a community to the pain of black people and the message of the Black Lives Matter movement cannot be to protect our Confederate idols at all costs.

 

The monument needs to go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 17, 2020 8:45 am

    My mother’s grand parents on her mith’s side were Foxes. Maybe we are distant relatives.

  2. June 17, 2020 12:09 pm

    Thank you for your candor and for bringing the true history of these monuments to life. I agree—these symbols of pain and intimidation must go.

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