Confederate statues around the country have often been a battleground on which wars over racial issues are waged. The latest round of bouts, stemming from the horrific actions in Charlottesville, VA, and the tragic death of Heather D. Heyer has given new life to the debate over the proper course of action with these monuments. Around the country, cries to remove statues of Confederate soldiers, generals, and even the “Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy” at Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta, GA, are matched in volume only by the voices of those rising in their defense.
The latest example took place in Baltimore, MD, where mayor Catherine Pugh removed her city’s Confederate monuments in the middle of the night. She did so without public notice to avoid granting a platform for protest by either side. Her reasoning was simply that she felt it was “in the best interest of my city.” She would go on to say that, “For me, the statues represented pain, and not only did I want to protect my city from any more of that pain, I also wanted to protect my city from any of the violence that was occurring around the nation.”
Was she right? Does removing these statues and monuments offer the chance to also remove the sting of racism and end the violence it causes on a near daily basis? I doubt Mayor Pugh really believes that, but her actions demonstrate that she does think it’s a necessary step toward that end.
While I cannot understand what it’s like to be an African American looking at statues memorializing those who fought in defense of slavery—though the Civil War was about far more than which states could and could not have slaves—the fact remains that we don’t grow as a people by ignoring our history. We grow by learning from it.
The Civil War began after seven southern states seceded following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860. Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t run on a platform of abolishing slavery throughout the nation. Rather, he promised only to outlaw slavery in all territories that had yet to become states. However, the writing was on the wall in the minds of many southerners, and eleven states would eventually leave the Union to join the Confederacy.
It’s true that a host of other economic, political, and social factors contributed to that split, but slavery was the issue that proved most irreconcilable. As many as 850,000 Americans would lose their lives over the course of the next four years because, as a country, we gave up on trying to resolve the issue of race peacefully. That’s more Americans than have died in every other one of our nation’s wars combined.
While protests outside of statues are a far cry from the violence and bloodshed of war, we must never forget the price that has already been paid on behalf of this issue. As Atlanta mayor Andrew Young described, “I think it’s too costly to refight the Civil War. We have paid too great a price in trying to bring people together.”
Removing the Confederate monuments is not the answer to this problem because it’s only by remembering our history and the price hundreds of thousands have already paid for these same mistakes that we can find the perspective to seek a better way.
Rather than toppling monuments, what would happen if we rebranded them instead?
What if every time someone looked at a Civil War statue, Union or Confederate, they thought not of the war over slavery, but rather the price that was paid by those who failed to find a better way to deal with these issues? What if these monuments could serve as a warning to us and our future generations about the inevitable costs associated with racism and bigotry? And what if every time our children ask about the man memorialized on a pedestal, we took it as an opportunity to help them understand how important it is that they not repeat those same mistakes today?
In 1 Corinthians, Paul concludes his description of the Israelites’ failures with the note that their stories were recorded to serve as a warning to future generations (1 Corinthians 10:1–13). His basic point is that unless we learn from the mistakes of those who came before us, we are all but certain to repeat them.
The statues that reside across our nation to commemorate those who fought in the Civil War could offer us just such an opportunity. They can be daily reminders of the costs inherent to the racism and bigotry that allowed slavery to exist for hundreds of years and continue to demean and diminish the lives of countless people today. Rather than acting as though that history never took place, let’s learn from it and allow their example to serve as a warning to our generation and those to come. Perhaps then, those who have already lost their lives to this struggle will not have died in vain.
Our tragic history in addressing this issue makes clear our need for a better way. But whether we will learn from our past or run from it remains a question each of us must answer for ourselves.
Which will you do today?