Reverend Barber's Historical Accuracy

Today Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, President of the NC NAACP, led a rally in downtown Hillsborough he called a "Press Conference For Historical Accuracy." Or, more to the point, it was a rally to protest North Carolina passing a law to make it illegal for local governments to remove historic monuments without State Legislature approval. I'm no fan of the state taking that authority away form local governments and the citizens that elected them. But, neither am I in favor of anyone removing historic monuments just because the causes they represent no longer appeal to us.

Historical accuracy - yes! I've said it before and I'll say it again: anyone who thinks removing confederate memorials is a good idea is just as foolish as anyone who thinks waiving a confederate flag is a good idea. The flag is clearly and irrevocably awash in racism. It was *created* to fly in battle in a war that was about slavery; it was *created* to rally troops to fight to keep slavery alive in the South. It was, pure and simple, in support of the wrong side of history - a Bad Cause.

But, good people fight for bad causes all the time. Every German soldier in WWII wasn't a mass murderer of Jews - most were simply fighting because their country was at war and that's what you do to support your country. Every US soldier sent to Iraq wasn't fighting for oil or some insane political ideology - they were soldiers bravely doing their duty when their nation called. Every confederate soldier wasn't in favor of slavery or even helped by it in any way - they were fighting for their homeland against hostile invaders. We should honor that bravery and that commitment to home in all soldiers.

Just because our Southern forefathers fought for a Bad Cause doesn't mean they were bad people. Tearing down monuments to their bravery is to pretend it never happened; it is an attempt to sanitize history of the mistakes we made. Sanitized history is not History at all. Remember the bravery of those who fought! Remember the mistakes made, remember how the 1% manipulated the non-slave-owning masses to fight for them, honestly celebrate the heroism of the good people caught up in fighting for a bad cause.

How can we learn from history and learn not to repeat it, if we tear down and hide away what we don't agree with? Is there no intellectual honestly anymore, are we all just lemmings getting caught up in faux outrage foisted on us by leaders of yet another Bad Cause?

Keep the monuments. Continue to educate people. Encourage open discourse on the meanings of the monuments and why we can honor individuals without honoring the cause their leaders sent them to die for. The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in D.C. doesn't honor the cause those men were sent to die for, it honors the men themselves. Confederate memorials are no different and should remain for the same reason.

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I agree with much of what you say, but I'd like to provide more context and information about the existance of Confederate Monuments in our state. At the outset of the Civil War, many in North Carolina did not want to secede from the Union, and the state was the last to do so. The majority of the Confederate Monuments, and there are 100 in our state including five on public land at the state capital, were erected at least 50 years after the conclusion of the Civil War. They were erected perhaps to honor the bravery of the Confederate soldiers, but more so to celebrate the rise of white supremacy, which had violently suppressed racial fusion governing efforts in our state.

These monuments in our state celebrate only one side of our racial history. What about celebrating the African Americans who helped to write our state constitution during Reconstruction? What about the African American Civil Rights leaders in our state?

The history we have been taught in our schools and on our monuments has been wrong. We must tell the truth so that we can reconcile with our white supremist past and dismantle it as David Neal has eloquently written in a recent piece in the new magazine, Scalawag.

It is quite true NC had a strong unionist/anti-secessionist leaning. NC resisted even calling for a secessionist convention so a vote could be held for a long time. When the first convention was finally called and votes cast in February of 1861, it was voted down. Only after Sumpter, and only after Lincoln called for the states to provide troops to quell the uprising in South Carolina, did a subsequent vote with new delegates decide in favor of secession in May of 1861 (remaining with the union would mean committing troops to kill their South Carolina kinfolk). And yet, a year later in 1862, North Carolina elected unionist governor Zebulon Vance in a landslide.

Clearly the majority of voters in NC remained against secession and against the war it brought with it. And yet NC supplied more soldiers to the war effort, and suffered more casualties, than any other Southern state. The reason for the war was slavery, but the reason those individuals went to war was not to protect slavery, but to protect their homes from invasion and open warfare. We can and should honor those soldiers with memorials without honoring the heritage of slavery and oppression, just as we can and should honor Vietnam veterans without honoring the ridiculous reasons for the US involvement in that war.

But, more to the point of your reply, its fallacious reasoning to suggest that confederate soldier memorials are bad and should be removed because the people who championed the memorials were racist. Thats a classic ad hominem - attacking the person rather than attacking the argument. If the monuments are bad, if what they memorialize is wrong, then critics should direct their arguments at what is wrong with what they memorialize, not what is wrong with the people who promoted the memorials. I believe I've made a pretty good case for keeping memorials to the people who fought and died in the war, and I've not yet seen any compelling arguments for why honoring those who died in that war is wrong.

in arguing about accuracy or making rhetorical arguments or really what white people think about Confederate Monuments. To a whole segment of our population, our neighbors, friends, loved ones, those monuments are a reminder of a time, a group of people, a government that subjugated their ancestors. Why would we want to maintain such objects in the public square that represent such continued pain to our neighbors? That perpetuate the oppression of people of color by signaling that the dominant culture endorses the use of public space in this way? Move them to museums, provide education and context there.

The idea that these monuments honor "good people caught up in fighting for a bad cause" is ahistorical. What history tells us is that most of the Confederate monuments in North Carolina were dedicated in the early 20th century as propaganda to help cement the advances of a resurgent, violent white supremacist movement. Historian Tim Tyson offered a brief glimpse of this history—the actual history of "Silent Sam" and other Confederate monuments—during the outstanding NAACP press conference in Hillsborough last Thursday.

Calls to remove Confederate monuments from our public spaces do not dishonor soldiers and their bravery, because these monuments do not primarily memorialize soldiers. They celebrate and reinforce the systemic, institutionalized oppression of black people. Their location in our most important public, civic spaces send a message. This isn't a mistake; it's what these monuments were intended to do.

Over the next few months, several introductory antiracism workshops will be offered in our area. Dismantling Racism Works will hold its next workshop in Durham in December. Organizing Against Racism will host several workshops in Chapel Hill and Durham between now and November. I encourage my fellow white people especially to consider attending one of these trainings.

Please see my reply above about ad hominem arguments. It applies here as well.

But this

... these monuments do not primarily memorialize soldiers. They celebrate and reinforce the systemic, institutionalized oppression of black people

is clearly and demonstrably wrong. I've seen no confederate memorial anywhere that glorifies the reason for the war (slavery) nor makes any mention, even coded, of oppression of blacks. For instance, you mention Silent Sam. The inscription on that memorial states To the sons of the university who entered the war of 1861-65 in answer to the call of their country and whose lives taught the lesson of their great commander that duty is the sublimest word in the english language.

What, exactly, in that inscription is not memorializing soldiers and instead memorializing oppression of black people?

I applaud those who continue to fight racism and to educate others. Institutional racism, sexism, classism, etc... are an insidious evil we have to continually shine a light on and drive out. But, in so doing, we must not whitewash and sanitize our history of things we might be ashamed of today.

Notwithstanding the ostensible purpose of the monuments as reflected in their inscriptions, the historical record regarding the fundraising for and dedications of the monuments tells a different story about why these monuments were erected at the time they were erected. There's nothing ad hominem about coming to terms with the context in which these monuments to "the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South" came to be. They mythologize the Confederacy and the "noble idea" of the white South, and they exist largely as a consequence—and in ongoing commemoration—of a successful white supremacy campaign to violently regain control of the state government at the turn of the 20th century.

A statue of Judge Thomas Ruffin, author of the infamous State v. Mann opinion that authorized unbridled use of disciplinary force by masters upon slaves, would be on the Capitol grounds, but another monument preempted its place, so it stands in the Court of Appeals building across the street. Erected in 1915, it shares in this history. Here's a passage from an essay of mine about the statue that was published in Southern Cultures in 2011 and in Commemoration in America: Essays on Monuments, Memorializaiton, and Memory (U.Va. Press, 2013):

In North Carolina, the creation of what [architectural historian Catherine] Bishir aptly calls "landmarks of power" took place in two phases. From the 1880s to the early 1890s, the focus of the memorial movement shifted from cemeteries, where statues of fallen soldiers spoke a language of grief that transcended sectional loyalties, to public spaces, as dutiful citizens heeded a more partisan call. This period culminated in 1895, in the erection on Union Square of the 75-foot monument to the state's Confederate dead. The second phase came in reaction to an unexpected political development: in 1894 and 1896, the Democrats lost control of the legislature and the governorship to a "Fusion" ticket backed by Populists and Republicans. The response to this embarrassment was swift and sharp. In 1898, the Democrats rushed back into power on a platform of white supremacy, leaving a trail of violence, most notably the deadly coup d'etat in Wilmington. In 1899 the party reclaimed the governorship and enlisted Jim Crow to seal the victory.

Against this backdrop, the second phase of monument-building reflected a "remarkable sense of shared purpose," Bishir observes. "With competing visions of the state's past, present, and future all but silenced in official discourse," she continues, "leaders shared a powerful sense that both in politics and in the culture at large, matters had been returned to their correct alignment." The state's history was reinterpreted as a tapestry of "old family heritage, Anglo-Saxon supremacy, and military and political heroism"; these were the fundamentals that would inspire "a rebirth of southern progress and leadership in the nation."

Here's more about Ruffin and State v. Mann, including a discussion of Eric Muller's extensive research on Ruffin's personal life, which included being a silent partner in a slave trading operation.

 
 

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