Maybe now it’s time for this change to occur.
We can and should have a reasoned debate over Confederate statues and monuments. Maybe it is time for them all to come down and be relocated to museums, parks and cemeteries. The only sure thing is change — as difficult as it may be for some — and maybe now it’s time for this change to occur.
The fact we’re having this debate 150 years after the end of the Civil War is testament to the suffering, pain, and division so many Americans endured prior to, during and after the war. Our anguish must have been imbedded in our collective psyche for the ache and disunion to have lasted over a century and a half.
One solution — more democratic and reasoned than mob rule or vandalism — would be to appoint community commissions that evaluate the statues and monuments for their historical and teaching significance. Those that “passed muster” and meet or exceed a standardized set of criteria, they would remain. Those that don’t pass muster are relocated or destroyed.
I hope most of us could agree that some of the statues should remain in public places if for no other reason than to help us remember the tragedy and mitigate the chance of repeating it.
Under my own personal criteria, those monuments and statues honoring common, dog-faced, “Johnny Reb” soldiers erected by communities to memorialize the sons, husbands and fathers who sacrificed their lives to protect their families and homes from the “marauding Yankees,” they would get “extra points” to remain in place.
Some of the officers, generals and statesmen statues could stand, too, but only if the sum total of their lives justified their remaining in place.
This is where the Aug. 17 defacing and subsequent removal of the Duke University chapel statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee doesn’t make much sense. It’s not democratic (or mature) to express one’s opinion of the statue’s presence by vandalizing it. And paragons of learning, reason and debate as they are, universities should be the last place that Lee’s statue should have been vandalized and then rapidly removed. The Duke University president reportedly “conferred with students, staff and alumni” on the rapid removal of the statue, but there couldn’t have been much real conferring going on — institution of higher learning type conferring that is — since Lee’s statue was removed on Aug. 19, only two days after it was vandalized.
So if it was Duke University students who defaced Lee’s statue, why are supposedly learned people like college students and the Duke University president rushing to judgment? Do they really know Lee? It seems not. It seems as if emotion and fear, not reason, took over at Duke.
Lee, like us all, was flawed. But I would challenge the people of a Methodist University who vandalized Lee’s statue and then rushed to remove it, as Jesus admonished us all in John 8:7 to, “Cast the first stone he that is without sin.”
As flawed and sinful and a product of his time as Lee was (as we all are), he was nonetheless an honorable man, honor being a precious commodity of which we could all use more. As a U.S. soldier, he fought gallantly in the Mexican War. Choosing to side with his beloved Virginia as it seceded from the Union is something he did with sadness, though once he had made his choice he gave it everything he had. He believed strongly in something and was willing to die for those beliefs. “Do your duty in all things,” Lee said. “You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.”
Lee is one of America’s greatest generals and military strategists, motivating, leading and succeeding with what amounted to a rag-tag group of farm boys fighting against the great industrial power the United States represented, especially by the end of the war.
When the Civil War was lost, Lee didn’t waste much time in “woe is me” lamenting and regretting. He took a job as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) saving it from bankruptcy and leading it to solvency and growth.
Lee was ambivalent about monuments to himself or to any Confederate cause for that matter, writing in 1866, “… in the present condition of the Country [to erect monuments], would have the effect … of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labor.” Still, statues and monuments to this honorable man were erected.
On Aug. 5, 1975, President Gerald Ford called Lee an example to succeeding generations and authorized restoration of his U.S. citizenship. The sum total of Lee’s life — his flaws and contributions from which we can all learn — should lead us to the right decision. If the president says Lee is an example to succeeding generations, that should be a powerful vote for his images to remain in place, whether in Charlottesville, Duke, or Richmond, along with the monuments to the fallen farm boys he so ably led.
Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.