The Confederate battle flag has come down from the State House grounds of South Carolina, and the National Park Service has removed the flag from all battlefields where it flew, sparking a debate between those for whom the flag carries hurtful connotations and others for whom it represents family and the land they love.
In Memphis there is talk of removing the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest and digging up the graves of Forrest and his wife. Here in Richmond, Confederate statues have been defaced, and nationwide there is a push to erase all mention of Confederates everywhere. It is difficult to fathom what this would accomplish other than to produce division and resentment. Certainly it would not materially alter the plight of black Americans. And in the process, millions of Southerners — some of them black — will feel that they are being deliberately humiliated and made to pay for something they did not do. It is nothing less than a cultural purge of the South — something historically associated with tyrannical regimes and unworthy of a free nation.
The story these symbols tell is more nuanced than what we typically hear. It is said that the South seceded to perpetuate slavery — and yet six slave states sent men to die for the North, and the Southern states rejected an offer from Lincoln that would have made slavery permanent in exchange for their return to the Union. In addition, although most Northern states had ended slavery by 1860, many had also passed “black laws,” a forerunner of Jim Crow, which placed tight restrictions on blacks and often forbade them from even living in the state. Furthermore, West Virginia was admitted into the Union as a slave state in 1863, and slaves in that and other Northern states had to wait until 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, for their freedom.
Slavery was more than just a Southern problem; it was an American problem.
Instead of removing all vestiges of the Confederacy, let us use these statues and the names inscribed on them to start a new conversation, one that acknowledges the roles of everyone involved and offers hope for our nation and its people, both black and white. Let the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest tell his full story, which might surprise many. Forrest is often reviled as a slave owner and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. But seldom are we told that 45 of Forrest’s slaves rode and fought alongside him as equals, their loyalty such that they remained with him even after he gave them their freedom papers; that the Klan’s original purpose was to serve as a volunteer police force against rampant crime in the occupied South; and that in 1870, when the Klan morphed into a terrorist organization, Forrest resigned and ordered the group disbanded. Softened by an encounter with his God, Forrest spent his final years advocating for political and social advancement for black Americans. When he died in 1877, more than 3,000 blacks lined up to pay their respects as part of his funeral procession.
Let the statue of Robert E. Lee, and the schools that bear his name, remind us all of a Sunday in 1865 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where Lee worshiped when in Richmond. That Sunday, with the wounds of war still raw, a black man walked down the aisle of St. Paul’s and knelt to receive Communion. The whites in attendance weren’t certain if they could, or should, take Communion with a black man. For a moment no one knew what to do. Then came a rustle, the scrape of boots on the floorboards, and the congregation looked up to see Lee walking down the aisle to kneel beside that black man, by his own example teaching those around him the way of respect and tolerance.
America’s history — both good and bad — has much to teach us, but those lessons are lost when their physical symbols are erased. This type of cultural cleansing, itself a form of intolerance, debases both America and its people and sets a dangerous precedent for our civil liberties.
We should restore the battle flag to its historical context, the battlefields, which are arguably the museums for that war, and leave the statues as they are. Let us instead use these icons to start a new conversation.
In 1861, our nation came apart because neither side was willing to compromise, with both sides focused on differences rather than commonalities. The result was vast swaths of the South ruined, nearly a million killed, and millions of Southerners, both black and white, left homeless and destitute. Today we see a similar unwillingness to compromise, with skin color increasingly emphasized and the lessons of 150 years ago seemingly unlearned — perhaps because we are telling only part of story.
The names and faces of these Southern men, and even the flag itself, speak not only of slavery and oppression, but also of decency, possibility and the power of transformation. They tell us that a nation, and men like Forrest, can overcome division and differences in skin color and work for a better world; and that although slavery is part of our past — America’s past — those on both sides of this debate can, like Lee, lead by example to offer respect, acceptance and forgiveness to all.
Kendall Wills Sterling is a freelance writer and editor and a lifelong student of 19th-century American history. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.