April 7, 2020

Getting Over It

By Stephen Tuttle | Aug. 26, 2017

The president says the removal of Confederate statues and monuments is erasing history and destroying the cultural heritage of the South. He openly asks if there is any difference between George Washington or Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee. 

Others believe those protesting neo-Nazis, the Ku KluxKlan, and replicas of Columbus' ships should just get over “it.” 

Let's take a look. We'll start with the obvious. 

Neither Washington nor Jefferson led a secessionist military of a self-proclaimed foreign country against the United States. Lee did. According to the Civil War Trust, the resulting war claimed at least 620,000 lives — no one knows for sure — making it by far the bloodiest war in our history.

Washington and Jefferson helped create the United States; Lee fought to destroy it. That's a pretty big difference, Mr. President.

But are we erasing history and somehow sullying the glorious cultural history of the South?

All the monuments now at risk of being removed celebrate Confederate leaders. It's difficult to twist reality sufficiently to make them American heroes since they all fought against the United States. Why did they fight? Apologists for the Confederacy always claim “states rights” as their lost cause. And what was the “right” these states wished to preserve? Slavery. 

It started almost as soon as Europeans showed up. Hernando de Soto enslaved indigenous women and children in 1539, right after he led the first recorded massacre, killing 200 indigenous men in what is now Florida. Our first record of organized slavery was in the Jamestown Settlement in 1619. 

It just got worse after that. By 1860 there were nearly 4 million slaves in the United States. The deep South, including the original secessionist states, almost entirely dependent on agriculture, counted nearly half its population as slaves.

There was no part of what became the Confederacy that wasn’t dependent on slave labor; it was the basis of its economy. The moral question didn't much trouble them. After all, the U.S. Constitution did not prohibit it and gave tacit approval by counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for property taxation purposes. 

When it became clear slavery was losing support outside of the South, the states seceded to protect what they claimed as their property. The 10th Amendment, giving state's rights on issues not enumerated in the Constitution, was the hook on which they hung slavery. Protecting it was why they started the Civil War.

When the war ended we finally did away with slavery with the 13th Amendment, gave citizenship to everyone born in this country (remember: slaves weren't citizens, they were property) with the 14th, and allowed all citizens to vote with the 15th. 

Not coincidentally, the KKK, claiming to be a Christian organization, formed in 1865, the same year we abolished slavery. Its first Grand Wizard was Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general honored multiple times with statues and monuments in Memphis. There's even a lovely bust of the KKK’s first leader in the Tennessee statehouse.  

The antebellum South was undeterred by pesky constitutional restraints. So-called Jim Crow laws created poll taxes to prevent poor African Americans from voting, confiscated property, supported the Klan and their lynchings, and segregated everything from schools to neighborhoods to drinking fountains. 

The oppression was sufficiently onerous: It led to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1965, a full century after the abolition of slavery.

Confederate soldiers might have fought bravely, but their cause was shameful. The statues are symbols of our darkest hour, honoring those who fought to perpetuate our greatest evil. There's nothing glorious about it.   

Of course, it's all old news. Things are better now. Shouldn't we “get over it?” 

• The last recorded lynching in the United States happened in Mobile, Alabama. That was 36 years ago.

• The federal government, having broken around 500 treaties with tribal nations, settled with the Osage Nation after decades of depriving them of money they were owed for their mineral, oil, and gas and timber rights. That was six years ago.

• The government also settled with 41 mostly western tribal nations for the same reason. That was five years ago. (Another 60 tribes are still negotiating.) 

• A white supremacist shot and killed nine African Americans at a Bible study class in a Charleston, South Carolina, church. That was two years ago.

• White, mostly wealthy residents of Gardendale, Alabama, have seceded from the Jefferson County School District, effectively segregating the school system. That was four months ago. (Some 47 other southern schools have done the same since 1987.)

• A hotel in Switzerland posted signs instructing Jewish guests to shower before using the pool. That was 17 days ago. 

People in KKK robes and others carrying flags with swastikas are marching in American streets. That's happening right now.

Maybe the reason we aren't over “it” is because “it” isn't over. 

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