Erasing history

As I don’t need to tell you, there’s a major debate currently going on in the United States about public statues honoring Civil War figures from the Confederacy. Those who advocate removing the statues object to honoring people who tried to maintain the institution of slavery.

While a lot of Southerners wish it weren’t so, preserving slavery was the primary goal of the Confederacy. It’s true that the South had many other grievances with the North, notably high trade tariffs that hurt Southern exports and led to a crisis a decade earlier. But what triggered secession was not a new tariff or anything of that sort; it was the election of Abraham Lincoln. Several states made explicit in their articles of secession that slavery was the issue at hand, and the Cornerstone Speech by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens delivered in Savannah on 1861 March 21 made this pretty clear as well, calling slavery “the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution” and declaring that ideas of racial equality were false: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Today, almost all of those who oppose removing the statues — even most of those who are open about their racism — acknowledge the evil of slavery, but to justify maintaining the statues they argue that removing them would amount to an attempt to erase history. There is of course a difference between remembering something and celebrating it, and most of the time the statues in question aren’t destroyed or melted down but merely relocated, typically to a museum. But advocates of maintaining them where they are contend that putting the statues out of sight amounts to hiding the history, which is practically the same as erasing it.

I have a serious question to those who take that position: If the absence of such a statute amounts to erasing history, then what about the history that’s already been erased?

There are many statues and memorials in the South honoring notable Confederate military leaders and even more meant to stand for unnamed Confederate soldiers defending their homes.

Where is there a comparable number of statues to stand for the millions of slaves whose labor built the antebellum South, or the slave families torn apart when a husband or wife or parent or child was sold, never to be seen again? Where are the statues honoring the men and women who risked their lives to help slaves escape via the Underground Railroad? Where are the memorials to the men and women denied their human rights by Jim Crow laws or murdered by lynch mobs? Where are the statues honoring leaders of the Civil Rights era and courageous individuals, many whose names are forgotten, who marched for justice or who quietly stood in line to register to vote even though they knew they’d be turned away, or who as courageous children or adolescents faced hatred and threats just to attend school or college? Such statues and memorials do exist, but generally not in the numbers or prominence awarded to figures of the Confederacy.

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Erasing history — 2 Comments

  1. Pingback: What do historians think about removing Confederate statues? | D Gary Grady

  2. Pingback: John Oliver on Confederate monuments and remembering history | D Gary Grady

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