Back in October I participated in a march against domestic violence and sexual assault that was sponsored by a non-profit whose Board I serve on. It took place in a small southern town where the organization is headquartered. It is almost stereotypical of the small southern towns that often serve as the setting in John Grisham novels. Where this one is different is that its downtown is not built around a town square bordered by the County Courthouse and attorneys’ offices. However it is the gathering place for the march and its non-verbal messages that I want to address today.
One of the town’s few prominent features is the campus of a junior college. The attractive campus occupies significant land on both sides of the street. Most students find it necessary to cross that street several times a day and in doing so almost invariably pass a monument that is on a little “island” in the middle of this rather pretty street. The “island” is home to a statue of a confederate soldier. The statue is a monument not to all war veterans but specifically to veterans of the confederate army. The main inscription on the monument reads as follows, “They gave their lives and fortunes for constitutional liberty and state sovereignty in obedience to the teachings of the fathers who framed the Constitution and established the United States of America.” That language is eerily similar to the rhetoric we heard spouted by the extreme right wing during the last several campaigns and could have been taken directly from speeches at Tea Party events. I have a general habit of being early and was the first one to arrive at this pre-appointed meeting spot. While I sat on a wall waiting for others to arrive that is the inscription I read. I was offended!
It was only the wisdom and forgiveness of Abraham Lincoln that saved the rebels from being hung. These people were not patriots, they rebelled against their country. They were little more than a band of domestic terrorists who took arms against their country in an effort to defend an economic system that was dependent on slavery. There is little difference between them and the Bundy crew in Nevada. They are defending an economic system that depends on the corporate welfare of being able to have their cattle graze on government land without paying the rent, (which is significantly reduced below the market rate).
These days the student body at the junior college is overwhelmingly African-American; the same heritage as the slaves of the era being commemorated. If an old white guy like me was offended how do you think these students feel?
The monument is located on North Main Street; when this thoroughfare crosses the river which bisects the town its name changes to South Main Street. During segregation (and still to a large degree today) whites live on North Main Street and blacks live the other side of the bridge on South Main Street. Now supposedly these hometown heroes were defending the South against Northern aggression; in fact many in the region refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. The proof of the underlying prejudice is that the soldier atop the monument is facing south to the black side of town. The clear intent was for our soldier of stone to defend the whites against “those people”.
I do not know the history of this particular monument and I’m not interested in some right wing indoctrination about it. If this monument is like many of its counterparts across the South the direction of the soldier and the inaccurate words literally written in the stone of it didn’t happen sans much planning and discussion.
Many small southern towns, this one included, can’t figure out why they have a difficult time attracting the economic components that will help them grow and prosper. I’d say that the place to start is by looking at what image they portray to a visitor who may be considering moving to and investing in their community. When it looks like racism is enshrined in your values and that you are mired in an era over a century old you don’t look like an inviting place to move, grow and invest. These communities may wonder ‘Why’ but I don’t!
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