A statue of a Confederate soldier “at rest” was placed in front of the Bryan County Courthouse in 1917. This photo was taken by The Oklahoman in 1959. Oklahoman archives.
OPINION | By Nate Morris
Monument Avenue stretches through the heart of Richmond, Virginia, the old capital of the Confederacy. Along this tree-lined road, filled with mansions and opulent row houses, stand six distinct statues – four of which were erected to honor Confederate leaders. Each day, citizens of this majority-black city traverse to school or work under the ever-present gaze of men like Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson; men who fought to preserve a system of brutal oppression.
This reality is not unique – either to Richmond or a number of other cities in our country. Nine U.S. states that are home to a combined 81 million people still celebrate at least one holiday honoring the Confederacy. In 2015, a Huffington Post article identified 195 public schools throughout the nation named after Confederate and Klan leaders. Most of the students who attend these schools (58.7%) are students of color.
The celebration of white supremacy is firmly rooted in Tulsa as well. Two of the most rapidly gentrified areas of the city, Brady Heights and the Brady Arts District, are both historically named after Wyatt Tate Brady, a prominent local Klansman and an engineer of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
The summer of 2017 has served to reignite the debate around the continued glorification of these historical periods and figures throughout the country. The most normalized counterclaim is that these statues, holidays, and monument names serve as a safeguard to preserving history; a piece of our past that should be protected. However, this argument fails to take into account the history of their creation.
A year ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a comprehensive timeline of the creation of iconography dedicated to white supremacists. The information in the timeline refutes the suggestion that these monuments were developed or named to preserve history. Instead, the findings lead to the conclusion that they were created to further empower a system of white supremacy and oppression against people of color.
The two time periods with the most rapid development of these statues and monuments at courthouses and other public spaces were during the expansion of Jim Crow laws throughout the South and immediately following the Tulsa Race Massacre. Likewise, the majority of schools named after white supremacists received their names immediately after the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, which declared school segregation unconstitutional.
The white supremacist terror attacks in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017, were rooted in the defense of a statue of Robert E. Lee in the heart of the city. Proponents of the statue’s preservation claimed that Lee was a war hero, a brilliant general, and an important historical figure. Activist and scholar Clint Smith recently refuted this notion, calling it “a long and purposeful propaganda campaign”. Citing a letter Lee wrote in 1856, Smith stated “[Lee’s] position was predicated on fighting to protect slavery.”
In that letter to his wife following a speech on slavery by President Franklin Pierce, Lee wrote that “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa. Morally, socially, and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare and lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by wise and merciful providence.”
This belief that slavery was a justifiable necessity was not exclusive to Lee, or Jackson, or Davis. It was a cornerstone in the purpose behind the Civil War; a central tenant in each and every Confederate state’s declaration of secession from the Union. Its preservation was fought for by men who went to war in order to ensure that millions of black citizens remained enslaved as human chattel.
Research of the history behind the statues, schools, holidays, and public spaces throughout this nation named after Confederates and Klansmen render unavoidable the fact that they exist solely to legitimize white supremacy in the modern-day United States. Removing this iconography of hate is not a diminishing of our history, but a reckoning with its truth.
An unprecedented opportunity exists in this moment to ensure that our children do not live in a country that chooses to honor these men. Men who believed that the bondage of fellow Americans was a blessing, and who worked every day to ensure that bondage would not be broken. Men who perpetuated a system of injustice that is deeply engrained in the fabric of our nation.
Along Monument Avenue, the statues of Lee, Jackson, Davis, and J.E.B. Stuart still stand. This fall, as the evening sun sets in the skies over Richmond, their figures will cast long shadows through the streets while students make their way home after school.
It is on us, as individuals, as communities, and as a country, to determine whether our brilliant black and brown children will be forced to continue to walk in the shadow of their oppressors; in the shadow of white supremacy.