By Charles Philip Brinkman, Alexandria (File photo)
To the editor:
The flying and subsequent removal of the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds in Columbia, S.C., has focused attention on symbols of the Confederacy elsewhere, and slurs and omissions that affront racial equality.
In many instances, they represented the canard of apologists of the day that the Civil War was some noble lost cause about states’ rights. The cause was never noble — it was slavery and the right of states to retain it. It was the burning issue of the day. Quotes abound from Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the Confederacy proclaiming that “liberty” demanded their right to maintain slavery. The fact that the North was not without complicity to this scourge does not change this basic fact. Lincoln put it most succinctly in his Second Inaugural address:
“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”
As we hasten to correct symbols that even now only some of us recognize as offensive, we should reflect that the elimination of symbols does not undo past social injustice.
There were almost 4 million slaves in the United States in 1861. Should we tolerate state condoning of the Confederate cause? The idea of states’ rights was the politically acceptable justification for a continuation of slavery then and since it has been widely employed by school textbooks to sugarcoat what was morally reprehensible to avoid offending a large number of people.
Unlike our condemnation of oppression elsewhere in the world, we excuse and even honor those that supported it. Slavery morphed into Jim Crow with the excuse that blacks were either inferior or not ready for inclusion into the wider society. Racism, as well as other instances of social injustice, still smolder below the surface and sometimes rears its ugly face, so as we impugn past injustice let us not be so blind to it in different guises.
There is no doubt that the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina was placed on the Capitol dome in 1961 as an act of defiance to efforts of the federal government to promote civil rights. Moving it from the dome to the Capitol grounds was a meager gesture towards reconciliation but retained the vestiges of state sanction. Its complete removal was essential. Appomattox, a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier, has stood facing south at the intersection of South Washington and Prince streets in Alexandria since 1889. When it was erected, veterans and their families were not so far removed from their sacrifice and loss, but growing up in Alexandria, I remember it being viewed as a symbol of defiance of the civil rights movement.
It is interesting that one recent commentator sees the courage of the men who left but not the cause for which they fought. Alexandria was not untouched by Jim Crow. Alexandria initially fought desegregation of schools; it had “white only” and “negro” restrooms and drinking fountains. Looked at from the landscape of Alexandria today, it may well seem a quaint historical relic. Nevertheless, it is time to move the statue to a place where its presence no longer will imply that the Commonwealth of Virginia, for its approval is required, or the City of Alexandria sympathizes with the Confederate cause.
There are appropriate venues — perhaps amidst graves of Confederate soldiers. Maybe away from the perils of traffic, one could actually safely read the names. It is fitting that we pay homage to those who fought and died, bravely and even nobly, even though the cause for which they fought was ignoble.
The dean of the Washington National Cathedral has suggested removing several panels of stained glass with Confederate images. It would be far better, I think, to acknowledge the inappropriateness of the glorification of the Confederate cause and leave the panels as a stain on our Nation’s collective conscience.
We may try by erasing and forgetting, but we cannot escape history.