Last week, I dropped by Pioneer Park on my way out of town for one last look at what are presently the most scrutinized slabs of marble in Dallas. I arrived a few hours too late, only to find an empty pedestal surrounded by scaffolding on the edge of the cemetery next to the convention center. The afternoon silence contrasted many other moments I’d witnessed on this piece of soil.
In August 2017, I covered a protest there, where the Rev. Dr. Michael Waters and those of like mind and heart called for the removal of our city’s Confederate monuments and squared off with a knot of those who find heritage and identity in these symbols of our past. The next evening, I watched on my screen as the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville began with a mob bearing tiki torches and semi-automatic rifles and culminated in a White supremacist flooring his car into counter protestors the following day, killing one. Days later, a group numbering into the thousands gathered at City Hall, where Rabbi Nancy Kasten gave the most mesmerizing address I’ve heard in our city, proclaiming a “faith that the outward symbols of White supremacy will be removed from our city … but the bigger tasks will still remain.” Her measured words, the expanses between them, and the rapt crowd brought home the gravity of what many were grappling with across our nation—a growing cognizance of the undeniable consequences of past tasks deferred.
The following month, after many days of spirited debate at Lee Park in Oak Lawn, we saw Robert E. Lee and an unnamed compatriot dethroned and strapped to a flatbed, where they made their last ride out of town, escorted by police in a funeral procession. For all of Lee’s flaws, disputed and generally ignored by lovers of the Southern myth, the record shows he had perhaps some moments of social awareness and humility. In an 1866 letter to a fellow general who had proposed a statue in his honor, Lee wrote back, “As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated … the attempt, in the present condition of the country, would have the effect of retarding instead of accelerating its accomplishment, and of continuing if not adding to the difficulties under which the Southern people labor.” The accomplishment and the labor he alluded to were surely the repairing of the White Southerners’ livelihood and the reclaiming of the White Southerners’ dignity post-defeat.
While the letter makes clear Lee’s understanding that these monuments would do more harm than good, he also ended with an openness to holding the idea in hand and waiting “for a better time.” That time ultimately came to pass, and between 1890 and 1929, upwards of 800 statues were erected across the South, in honor of those who fought for the ideals of the Confederacy. In Pioneer Park and elsewhere, that number is rapidly dwindling, sparking mixed reviews.
Modern-day supporters of the Confederacy who fear erasure of our history often seem to be those with the weakest grasp on it, specifically, the Southern states’ reasons for secession and involvement in the Civil War. Their resistance to Confederate monument removal makes a fair amount of sense when we consider the popularity of lopsided myths of Southern exceptionalism and absolution that have informed the history lessons of our youth and ultimately shaped much of white Southern culture. And yet it makes none when a quick Google search can bring one face-to-face with documents which make plain that maintaining states’ rights to uphold slavery was the primary motivation for the lower states who allied with the Confederate cause. These facts are consistently absent from the inscriptions written in stone at the bases of these supposed historical artifacts, adorned instead with flowery terms such as “genius and valor.” While any man who would charge onto a battlefield with a musket and bayonet can be said to possess bravery, moral courage is something else entirely. The lack of strength of ethnological character is the great sin of many generations of White Southerners. Some of this age continue to affirm that by—in the face of fact—remaining unwilling to see their folly in serving as present-day defenders of an ancestry that felt that preservation of human bondage was an enterprise worth upholding. Texas’ Declaration Of Causes leaves little doubt about the Confederacy’s ultimate errand. We should, all of us, read it and weep.
For those with eyes to see, there also exists a wealth of available information about who built these statues. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, which at times served as polite society’s auxiliary female arm of the Ku Klux Klan, was perhaps the most effective in their supplanting of historical narratives. Their thrusting of racist symbols into public spaces and lobbying for public school curriculums that minimized slavery’s essential role in the Civil War were propelled by an ultimate cherished purpose, that “by thorough training of their powers of mind, heart and hand, render it possible for … our Southern race to retain its supremacy in its own land.” This was the dark agenda of those who erected these statues and the results of that thorough training and subsequent indoctrination remains alive today. It is becoming difficult to view the current defenders of these tokens, which were designed to intimidate our precious Black brothers and sisters past and present, as anything more than modern-day carriers of a torch which should have burned out long ago.
There also exist moderates who see the Confederacy for what it was but move the conversation, not without irony, to fears of history being deleted. Many among us fear a future dystopian age of censorship where a totalitarian government regulates symbols and even speech in our society. To understand what humanity and those in positions of absolute power are capable of is to sympathize with those concerns. To watch for their foreshadowing is a reasonable collective duty. And yet to earnestly confuse these feats of progress for initial steps in that direction finds us drinking from the Whites-only fountain of the UDC, furthering their ideology and normalizing their values. The call of removal, though symbolic, is a clear refutation of their morally bankrupt doctrine. If we don’t share these ethics, it should be simple enough to say so and act accordingly by aiding in removal of these emblems so clearly rooted in racism and the folly of our lesser ancestry.
When those before us failed to do the demanding work of accounting for their traditions and who they actually were, they did much damage to who we would become. In failing to understand past generation’s failures with the same zeal with which we celebrate their victories, we’ve emerged unseeing and unaware of our handicap. The railroad tracks that separate our towns, redlines that divide cities, razor wires built disproportionately for Black bodies, and, of course, these long unregarded golden idols celebrating tormentors make apparent the extent to which our blindness has been accepted. Our acceptance of two distinct Americas has been the ultimate achievement in social normalization, a charge led by Southern apologists. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And yet there’s something exceptional happening in this moment of reconstruction. The question now being asked is, what part will each of us play in it?
After Pioneer Park, I spent the evening in Kaufman, the rural Texas town in which I grew up, visiting with citizens and elected officials alike about and posing this very question. The long overdue debate over whether Black folks can expect a fair trial in a courthouse whose entrance is guarded by a 20-foot Confederate soldier now knocks upon their door as well. Opinions varied, from relocating them for moral and religious reasons to simply doing so to salvage public image and future commerce. The consensus was ultimately that the statue’s construction was long ago predicated on falsehood and that its continued presence is counter to the vision of the future that well-meaning folks desire for that community. Keep in mind that Kaufman, like most rural towns in our state, is a largely conservative community. And still, one of the men I talked to simply stated he understood there was a generational responsibility to deal with this issue, regardless of whether he and his peers had assisted in its creation. The days to come will reveal the extent of this commitment but if it be true, the town’s past may light a path for those of today.
According to oral history, in the 1960s, the ladies of our town, both Black and White, gathered to discuss coming integration and upon acknowledging its inevitability, they worked together to set a precedent of acceptance and cooperation that was to expand to the rest of the family. My grandmother was one of those women and was active in Kaufman on a civic level throughout her life. Having grown up in further East Texas, these changes countered her inherited acceptance of age-old traditions such as “separate but equal.” This hesitant admission connects me to those seeking to sanitize their forebear’s legacies, and yet it is in having witnessed those fictional accounts that I am ever aware that meaningful conversations die in the absence of truth. As the tide turned, though, she not only capitulated to this sea change but endorsed it, led by the belief that there was something special about her town and that here was an opportunity to right past wrongs and avoid the fruits of indifference to progress. It would be disingenuous to say the town saw no resistance or that the process wasn’t unfathomably difficult on the Black student pioneers that left the Pyle School and integrated Kaufman High School, but Kaufman did avoid making national headlines as another Southern holdout, resisting the inescapable, largely because of these women who acted and set precedent.
Of my grandmother, I am so much of who I am because she loved and shaped me for the better and few who knew her that wouldn’t offer similar and sincere feelings. And yet I am also emotionally honest enough to recognize that her actions were likely as influenced by moral awakening as they were by grasping that change was upon her and that to resist would prove to be moral, social, and historical suicide. This sort of action, even when lukewarm, is what time and the pressure of shifting social forces eventually demand of individuals, communities, and nations. Those who have gone before us, rectifying historical failures and amending inaccuracies where they could, offer a model we can now follow and motives we can improve upon.
Living up to who America claims to be on paper will require this. Our past ability to remain neutral in these matters no longer seems to be on the table. We will either join with our Black neighbors in the mutual goal of creating a more just nation by removing oppressive structures, seen and unseen, or our prejudice may no longer be deniable. To support these remaining relics, regardless of our motivations, we make ourselves allies of actual racists who understand fully what the statues mean and have always meant. For those of us who find this objectionable and are willing to act, that concession stands to make us allies of people of color. Which of these partnerships potentially offers a more harmonious future in this country? And which of these unions have power to heal divisions that so many claim to witness but in which they fail to see their part?
Seeking the right partners and separating ourselves from those with no realistic vision for an equitable America seems to be one of the bigger tasks that Rabbi Kasten spoke about at City Hall in 2017. As we become willing to address matters long ignored, themes far more worthy of pedestals are emerging rapidly. The surge in White participation in protests in every major city, the maxim Black Lives Matter now adorning our public spaces, and the empty platform at Pioneer Park have become living symbols of our lifetime, and they offer far more honesty about who we have been and who we can become than marble monoliths of the Old South.
To further this truth, we must persist in re-creating ourselves by relinquishing false doctrines and actively participating in the continued removal of the many structures informed by White supremacy that exist in public spaces, institutions, and within ourselves. The resulting empty expanses call to us now for restorative depictions expressing who we are and ask us to live in such a way to be truly worthy of affectionate memorial. In these remodeled spaces, we can elevate new symbols that truly embody this country, with motifs rooted in truth, equity, and awareness of our past. We prove ourselves deserving of these by our commitment to a new reconstruction.