Just across the street from the old Durham County Courthouse—now being renovated into administration office space—in front of the social services building, there’s a series of monuments to North Carolinians who’ve fallen in battle: in World Wars I and II, in Korea and Vietnam. To the left, there’s a statue atop a granite stone. It reads, “In memory of ‘the boys who wore the gray.’”
One of these things is not like the others.
Think what you want about the wisdom of America’s many foreign wars, but they all had a common denominator: the people who fought and died in them were fighting on behalf of the United States, at the behest of its government. The people who fought and died while wearing the gray, on the other hand, were serving a treasonous insurrection that sought to perpetuate human chattel slavery. However the South wishes to romanticize its history a century and a half later, that’s the ugly truth of the Civil War.
So why do the losers of this lost cause—a detestable cause that literally put them in armed conflict with the United States—deserve not just a place in our history books but their own monuments, as if they were worthy of being in public memory, let alone public reverence?
I’m obviously not the first to wonder that. But with Memorial Day around the corner, and with recent news of New Orleans and Orlando taking down their Confederate monuments, it seems fitting to raise it once again.
North Carolina, after all, has more Confederate monuments than any state but Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. (We’re tied with Georgia.) One hundred and forty places, buildings, roads, and monuments honor the Lost Cause. While Durham and Chapel Hill have one monument each, Raleigh has three—the Henry Lawson Wyatt Monument, the Confederate Women’s Monument, and the Confederate Soldiers Monument, all on the Capitol Grounds and dedicated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In 2015, after South Carolina took down a Confederate flag from its statehouse following a hate crime that claimed the lives of nine African Americans, Republicans in the General Assembly passed a law making it nearly impossible to remove Confederate (and other) memorials from public spaces, at least without permission from the N.C. Historical Commission.
At the time, Republicans said they merely wanted to preserve history, not praise the Confederacy.
Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, said opposition to the bill is “based on a misreading of history.” The memorials need to be viewed in context, he said, and the people and events they commemorate remembered for their role in creating the North Carolina that exists today.
“We should embrace history, not forget it,” Blust said. “We have to preserve history, even the bad parts, to learn from it and grow from it.”
Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, would like to have a word with them about that.
Landrieu is white and comes from a long family of Louisiana Democrats. On Friday, just before the statue of Robert E. Lee was removed from Lee Circle, where it had stood since 1874, Landrieu gave a remarkably poignant, sober speech at Gallier Hall, the former city hall where Jefferson Davis once lay in state, about what those monuments really stood for and, more important, about the reckoning the South needs to have with its history.
The speech worth reading in its entirety. You can also watch it here.
I’ll excerpt some passages below.
But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were brought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture.
America was the place where nearly 4,000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp.
So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth.
And it immediately begs the questions: why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.
So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission.
There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it. For America and New Orleans, it has been a long, winding road, marked by great tragedy and great triumph. But we cannot be afraid of our truth.
The historic record is clear: the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.
First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy.
It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America. They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.
These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.
After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.
Should you have further doubt about the true goals of the Confederacy, in the very weeks before the war broke out, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, made it clear that the Confederate cause was about maintaining slavery and white supremacy.
He said in his now famous ‘Cornerstone speech’ that the Confederacy’s “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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
For a long time, even though I grew up in one of New Orleans’ most diverse neighborhoods, even with my family’s long proud history of fighting for civil rights … I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought.
So I am not judging anybody, I am not judging people. We all take our own journey on race. I just hope people listen like I did when my dear friend Wynton Marsalis helped me see the truth. He asked me to think about all the people who have left New Orleans because of our exclusionary attitudes.
Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it?
Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?
We all know the answer to these very simple questions.
When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.
And I knew that taking down the monuments was going to be tough, but you elected me to do the right thing, not the easy thing and this is what that looks like. So relocating these Confederate monuments is not about taking something away from someone else. This is not about politics, this is not about blame or retaliation. This is not a naïve quest to solve all our problems at once.
This is, however, about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and, most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves, making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong.
Perhaps we—in Raleigh, in Durham, in North Carolina, everywhere—should ask ourselves what those 140 monuments to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy say to African-American children and to the world, whether they represent the best of us or whether this history belongs in a book, not on display.