History in Dispute

Numerous protests have taken place in Asheville at the Vance Monument by those who want it removed. Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News

By Johnnie Grant –

Are we in the throes of another Civil War?

Across the United States conversations have ignited debate about the placement of Confederate monuments in public spaces, as well as related conversations about the role of Confederate and white supremacist imagery in American culture. Protests regarding commemorations of the Confederacy, from north to south, have sparked numerous debates about racism and power. With fervent beliefs on both sides, discussions have taken unexpected turns as people unwittingly—or purposely—offend each other.

The War between the States—and between ideologies…

Many supporters of the Confederacy maintain that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but rather the South fighting to defend its sovereignty against northern aggression and federal tyranny. But the facts are plain.

American history tells us that the Cornerstone Speech, (also known as the Cornerstone Address), delivered by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens in Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1861, explicitly laid out the reasons secessionists believed the Civil War was necessary. Stephens’s speech applauded white supremacy, defended the enslavement of Africans and African Americans, and explained the fundamental differences between the constitution of the Confederacy and that of the United States.

Stephens contended that advances in the sciences proved that the eighteenth-century view that “all men are created equal” was erroneous; rather, science showed that all men were not created equal. He claimed scientific proof that enslavement of African Americans by white men was justified, and that it coincided with the Bible’s teachings. He also stated bluntly that the Confederacy was the first country in the world founded on the principle of racial supremacy.

Stephens’s speech was delivered extemporaneously just weeks before the Confederacy began the Civil War by firing on U.S. Army troops at Fort Sumter, SC. In expressing his ideology of African American inferiority and his beliefs about biblical justification for slavery, he made crystal clear the Confederacy’s rationale for secession and declaring war was not states’ rights, but slavery.

…hasn’t ended yet

After the secessionists’ loss of the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, the disfranchisement of African Americans continued, thus allowing white southerners to frame their struggle as a “Lost Cause” that is still being played out today. The Confederate monuments and other symbols that dot the South are very much a part of that effort.

The women’s restroom below Pack Square in the 1960s was designated “for white women” … only.  Photo: Andrea Clarke Collection

The vast majority of the statues, plaques, memorials, and monuments to southern and Confederate “heroes” were erected during three periods: 1) post-Reconstruction (1877-1900) when white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, and other die-hard defenders of the Confederacy made a concerted effort to glorify their “lost cause” and rewrite history (as exemplified by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation); 2) the post-World War I era, when the “Roaring 20s” boom elevated much of the country, but the South grew ever more entrenched in glorifying its past; and again after World War II, 1946 through the mid-1960s, in reaction to the renewed momentum for civil rights for black citizens, thousands of whom had fought in both wars but were treated as inferiors at home.

From President Harry Truman’s integration of the Armed Forces, through the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and in reaction to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1957, 1964, and 1965, unreconstructed southern racists did everything they could to reestablish their absolute rule over African Americans. Lester Maddox and Herman Talmadge (GA), George Wallace (AL), Strom Thurmond (SC), Orval Faubus (AR), and Jesse Helms (NC) all built political careers and power based on unabashed belief in white supremacy—careers that coincided with the building of hundreds of Civil War memorials across the South.

The stakes are high

The white nationalists who recently gathered in Charlottesville, VA and other places throughout the country see this perhaps more clearly than the rest of us. They understand the stakes of what they were/are defending. They know that Lee was honored not for making peace, but for defending a cause and a society built upon white supremacy—first by taking up arms, and then (when the war was lost), by laying them down in such a way as to preserve what they could of the old South.

As we face our future as a nation and a community, shall we continue maintaining Confederate installations and monuments on public squares, placing slave-holders’ names on street signs, and honoring Confederate generals with the names of military bases? Should we move forward in history knowing what these monuments meant for the masses of people whose enslavement was the impetus for the Civil War?

The Urban News interviewed a cross-section of citizens regarding this controversial topic; their comments follow.

Joyce and Bernard Oliphant

Bernard V. Oliphant

The Confederate monuments in Asheville are a divisive and ugly sign of a time gone by. They do not represent the diversity of this city, nor the people that currently live here. If they remain, then where are the images of Native Americans and images of African American people (like James Vester Miller) who helped to build this city? I vividly remember the sign engraved in the concrete wall over the rest room under the Vance monument that said, “White Women Only.”

Joyce A. Oliphant

My stance on the Confederate monuments as to whether they should or shouldn’t come down is this: If they are not removed or decommissioned, people will still have memories of what they stood for. Something has to change.

Luke Hyde

Attorney Luke D. Hyde

I am a student of history, and I would have disagreed originally about the erection of some of the statues. Since they have been put up, I think the local communities should work with all the people in each town and county and make appropriate decisions on what should be done. I do not support violence, or destruction of property in any form or shape. I think those people who want to tear down the statues are making a mistake; I think those people who won’t identify them are making a mistake. I think it should be worked out with a collection of people, and truly involve all the diverse citizens in that town and county.

Doreen Smith

Doreen Smith

As an African American, such memorials trivialize our pain, our history, and concerns about racism—whether the racism is of the past, or of today. I was raised to treat everyone the way I want to be treated, and these are values that I’ve lived by.

Michael Collins

Michael Collins

I live in Asheville, and I think all of the Confederate monuments should come down. I think there should also be some type of Democratic participatory process initiated to rename streets that are named after the major slave-holders of the 19th century here in Asheville as well. I think all this should be done in conjunction with reparations or a reconciliation packages from the City of Asheville and Buncombe County for the past grievances like redlining, and urban renewal. So, I don’t think the monuments should come down on their own; I think they need to come down with a conversation on how we compensate for previous wrongs that the city (Asheville) has committed and partaken with.

Kate Fisher

Kate Fisher

The confederate monuments should have never have been installed, and were clearly erected to intimidate the newly freed African American population. If [they] remain, then they should tell all of the history that needs to be told. In reference to the Vance Monument, I feel all the stories need to be told, including the history of Pack Square (where the Vance Monument stands) being a place where African slaves were sold. These monuments are celebrating people who oppressed other people. The United States can go around the world insisting that the Berlin Wall needs to come down, which the Soviet Union tore down; and to take down a statue of Saddam Hussein, which Iraq did. The United States should follow its own lead and do the same.

How Do We Move Forward?

What are the ways in which we tell and teach each other what we value? Should we recognize the Civil War history as one that we have overcome, and preserve those monuments and installations in the appropriate places (and spaces), like museums or monumental grounds, or leave them where they stand?

As long as people insist on cherishing the cause and the ideology of the Civil War, the nation will be divided by the politics of racial inequality and the South’s bitter memories of its defeat. It is up to the citizenry of these United States to decide.

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