History, so the saying goes, is written by the victors. People of color in this country know that the North won the Civil War on the battlefield, but we also know that white nationalism won the peace. From the failure to distribute land to the formerly enslaved people as promised (“40 acres and a mule”), to the imposition of poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent real citizenship, to the state-sponsored terrorism of the KKK, to the “Southern Strategy,” white nationalism won.
President Trump tweeted this morning: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”
For me, the most important word in that statement is the word “our.” Who does the President mean when he speaks of the history and culture of our great country? He certainly is not including me, nor the soon to be majority of Americans who do not participate in white privilege and who know white nationalism only as a source of terror. Nor is he including white persons of good will, like Heather Heyer who was murdered in Charlottesville last Saturday.
The drama around these monuments, these statues of white men who committed their lives to preserving slavery, will continue to play out. Baltimore removed all of their monuments in the dark of night without incident. Other cities will agonize through city council meetings and decisions will no doubt be litigated in the courts as well as in the press.
History is indeed important. We need to remember that these statues were not erected, the vast majority of them, immediately following the Civil War. They were put up in the early years of the 20th century when the reign of terror we now call Jim Crow was solidified. These statues were not part of a dispassionate pict-o-gram of the history and culture of Dixie, they were intended to help re-enforce the racial pride of poor whites and strike fear in the hearts of Blacks.
These monuments were weapons, just as much as the public cross burnings were. We, as a nation, have tolerated and even welcomed domestic terrorism against people of color, from the genocide of native peoples and lynchings of African Americans to the War on Drugs.
The President tweeted on this morning. “the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replace.”
Let people of good will hope and pray that that is so. We need different monuments. Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (https://racialinjustice.eji.org), spoke at the UUA’s General Assembly in June. EJI is extending its work into efforts to heal the legacy of racism and the culture of white supremacy that supports it. Their Community Remembrance Project is collecting soil from the sites of more than 4000 documented lynchings between the end of the Civil War and the end of World War II. The jars of soil, labeled with the names of the victims, will be gathered in a new Memorial to Peace and Justice where there will be a marker for each county where a lynching took place. Historical markers will be available, to be placed at the lynching locations. The first of these was installed in Montgomery, Alabama in 2013.
White Nationalism is alive and well. It always has been in this country. And it is now empowered by tacit, if not active support from the White House. The “Alt-Right” plans to bring demonstrations to a host of other communities. The issue is not absent from Oregon with its own culture and tradition of racism. The number of calls received at the church complaining about our Black Lives Matter banner spiked up this week.
President Trump is correct that we cannot change history but we need not keep repeating it. Those who lament that people of color refuse to be content, and who try to pretend that we have moved beyond race in our life together, might benefit from an “alt-history” lesson that would tell more of the truth about our past, without placing it on a pedestal.
The resurgence of white nationalism is not a reason to lose hope, but rather the best reason to renew our resistance. Real hope is grounded in clear seeing of what has been and a clear vision of what can be. The Beloved Community remains our vision. The barriers to that vision are now simply on display.