All over the country the baffling and recalcitrant permanence of monuments and memorials dedicated to characters of the Confederate army, which went to war with the U.S. to protect their alleged right to own black people, are finally being torn down after the true nature of these symbols and its culture erupted violently in Charlottesville, Virginia.
My city of residence, Brownsville, Texas, has its very own shrine dedicated to a Confederate hero in Washington Park: The Jefferson Davis Memorial.
Brownsville is a bit different from most towns in the U.S. It seems that most people have no idea the memorial is there, and a lot of those who do, don’t particularly care one way or the other. A little more than a year, a local teacher, Antonio Castillo, created a petition on Change.org in the hopes that government officials feel compelled to take it down or relocate it to a museum. Since then it has accumulated more than 5,200 signatures and a modest amount of local press. However, it has not received enough attention from our public servants.
So I have a question to the citizens and public servants of Brownsville after Charlottesville, where enthusiasts of this shameful chapter of our history gathered to defend these monuments they claim are unrelated to white supremacy, and where they also gathered to proclaim white supremacy: Do you care now? Or are we still going to impose on voters a shrine to a man who explicitly declared their inferiority until his death?
It’s not just a rock, as some claim. It’s an officially sanctioned symbol that alienates citizens. People of all colors and ethnicities pay taxes, and whether they know it or not, Jefferson Davis considered them biologically and intellectually inferior. If they are not aware of these facts, then it’s a covert indignity, but no less an indignity.
The history of the Civil War is not one in which the facts are murky or disputed. Not by any serious historian, anyway. Yes, it’s true, at that point it wasn’t Lincoln’s priority to abolish slavery, nor was there any indication that this was a plan in motion. Despite showing sympathy for abolition, he was clear in his conviction that the black man was inferior to whites. He co-opted the abolitionist movement because the Union needed that support to defeat the Confederacy and prevent the secession. This, however, does not change the facts of the Confederacy: They betrayed their country and died in the tens of thousands to protect the institution of slavery.
This was, beyond any reasonable doubt, their motive to secede, which indicates they felt rather strongly about the whole thing. This is verifiable by multiple means, but it’s frankly unnecessarily complicated when you can actually read the secession declarations or other documents in which each one of the states cites the preservation of slavery as the primary motive. Having said this, inevitably one has to assume that, if you have reverence for anybody who of their own volition fought for the Confederacy, you are either not aware of the facts of the conflict, or you are being intellectually dishonest about it.
The people of this country are finally collectively questioning the moral implications of having statues honoring Confederate leaders in public places. The debate has reached a boiling point, but in reality, the morals of the issue are as black and white as can be.
Surprisingly, the discussion is a confrontation between two different versions of reality, and this is always a dead end. If we can’t agree on the real motivations of the Confederacy, then how can we discuss the subject of the monuments? This collection of statues, plaques, street names, public building names, and every other incarnation of a tribute to the Confederacy, including our very own Jefferson Davis memorial on Lincoln Square in Brownsville, comes with its own history and corresponding tergiversation. This is largely a result of the racist corners of the south attempting to rewrite history through influence and financial resources, which extended all the way to the public education system, where racial and military subjects have been taught in a deceitful manner. Many people might be confused to learn that the overwhelming majority of these monuments were erected many, many years after the war, specifically during the Jim Crow era.
Is it not odd that, despite 90,000 Kentuckians fighting for the Union and only 35,000 for the Confederacy, Kentucky has two monuments for the Union and 72 for the Confederate States? Why are states which did not even secede filled with these shrines? Why are there monuments to Confederate figures who were also Ku Klux Klan members, like Albert Pike? Or Fort A.P. Hill, named after a Confederate general whose men killed African American soldiers after they surrendered? What about Fort Benning? Named after a Confederate general. After helping the state of Georgia to secede, Benning presented this to the Virginia legislature:
“What was the reason that induced Georgia to take the step of secession? This reason may be summed up in one single proposition. It was a conviction . . . that a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery. . . . If things are allowed to go on as they are, it is certain that slavery is to be abolished. . . . By the time the North shall have attained the power, the black race will be in a large majority, and then we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything. . . . The consequence will be that our men will be all exterminated or expelled to wander as vagabonds over a hostile Earth, and as for our women, their fate will be too horrible to contemplate even in fancy.”
Some of these monuments have unequivocally deceitful information about the motivations of the south as a deliberate attempt to manipulate public consciousness. The reality is that, when analyzing the conjuncture, it becomes clear that these were erected as a part of a political project. The vast majority appeared at the beginning of the Jim Crow years, as a tool to intimidate black people and create a cohesive white working class by filling public spaces with symbols of white supremacy. The second big wave of memorials came just as southern states and local governments were fighting hard to keep segregation legal after the supreme court declared it unconstitutional. This is the same time when the Confederate flag came to prominence. This flag has no substantive historic significance. It meant nothing in particular in the Civil War. The flag was adopted by segregationist white supremacists and the Klan as their unofficial flag, a symbol of hatred and intimidation.
“Southern heritage” in the context of the Civil War is a number of symbols all surrounding, directly or indirectly, a pro-slavery, white supremacist ideology. Does an American Southern culture or heritage exist that isn’t necessarily related to white supremacy, slavery, the racist Confederacy, and Jim Crow? I don’t think so. Not entirely. This doesn’t mean that you can’t feel pride or attachment to your place of origin and respective collection of symbols and rituals, but to do so on solid moral standing, first, the monstrous part of that culture has to be acknowledged and scrutinized thoroughly and then unequivocally renounced. It has to be exorcised. That’s the only way to rescue your heritage. The issue here is that most people are not willing or ready to acknowledge and take accountability for the mistakes of the past. This begs the question how they really feel about racism in the present day, and not just in relation to the past.
Without a doubt, the whitewashing of history relieves much of the pressure to look at it honestly. I believe that at the core of much of the toxic wasteland that is racial discourse in America, the Civil War remains like an unprocessed, unassimilated memory, causing pain in the collective subconscious of the country. How can we make sense of the present state of racial dynamics if we can’t agree on the fundamental facts of their catalysts? Most of the time when discussing the issue I encounter people who do astonishing mental acrobatics in order to keep new information from changing their stance. It is too ingrained in their identity and the view of the world that makes sense to them. And that is the problem when we talk about the Civil War, and more broadly, about race in the U.S. We won’t defeat the idea of racial supremacy only with information because it’s a cultural illness. When you’re dealing with culture, it is so much more labor intensive for people to take in conflicting information because it’s not just a fact that changes; it’s your own way of making sense of the world that is disrupted, too.
In this regard, I think it is necessary to clarify a few things that have been said regarding this across the country, including defenders of the Davis memorial in Brownsville. First, the difference between a historical artifact/historic site, and a monument, as well as the difference between public and private. The difference is objectivity versus subjectivity.
A historic site or object is an official location or pieces of political, military, cultural, or social history have been preserved due to their cultural heritage value. In this case, there is not an official position on the morality of the issue. It’s an objective look at something mementos from a time that help us learn about it and understand the context. A monument, BY DEFINITION, is a building, statue, or location that HONORS a person or event. This inherently takes a position or a subjective look at history. It chooses a side.
Public buildings and public servants are (or should be) always defined in democratic terms. Why? Because they are both maintained by the taxes paid by the citizens. Public squares, and parks, and buildings are democratic spaces. A subjective position should not be assumed officially by a democratic government unless its people have spoken about it. This is why elections and town hall meetings and such things exist. But besides that, the next natural question to ask is this: Is a plaque that honors Jefferson Davis an official representation of our officials’ views on slavery and the American Civil War?
Everybody is free to keep looking up to him in private after learning the facts about him, that is private life. I don’t honor him, though. Quite the opposite. And this thing is located in a public space, sanctioned by our government, which is supposed to be a representation of our ideals and our needs. If you are honest enough to acknowledge Davis as a historical staple of American racism, then you need to understand that what we have on Washington Park is a shrine with no major historical value. The tone here is considerably different to the one we have used in the countless previous instances in which this was brought up to our officials in the past two years and not taken seriously.
I ask the citizens of Brownsville, Texas, if they celebrate slavery, segregation, and second class citizenship. If the answer is no, then, why are you allowing your government to do it in your name?