Josh Shaffer

Drop the flag, but keep Confederate monuments

A portion of one of the three statues and two seals adorning the large Confederate monument to the state's Civil War dead at the corner of Hillsborough and Salisbury Streets on the State Capitol grounds Tuesday morning, June 23, 2015.
A portion of one of the three statues and two seals adorning the large Confederate monument to the state's Civil War dead at the corner of Hillsborough and Salisbury Streets on the State Capitol grounds Tuesday morning, June 23, 2015. hlynch@newsobserver.com

With the Confederate flag under attack in South Carolina, denounced as a racist symbol, the call is already rising to wipe out our own state’s Civil War tributes, from the license plates to the soldiers chiseled from stone.

Gov. Pat McCrory announced Tuesday he will ask the state legislature to eliminate the specialized plate issued to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which features a battle flag alongside the standard Wright Brothers’ airplane logo.

It’s proper that he did this. Anyone who knows the history of that flag knows it gained popularity in the 20th century, and it was revived as a tool to resist integration — not to commemorate fallen soldiers. Long the standard of white supremacists, it is too loaded an image now to carry any other meaning.

But how far should this historical house-cleaning go?

Already, Confederate monuments in Maryland, South Carolina and Texas are getting sprayed with red paint announcing, “Black Lives Matter” or “Bump all the Chumps.” Gov. Zebulon Vance’s statue in Asheville got the same treatment Tuesday. A petition circulating on change.org calling for the Jefferson Davis statute’s removal at the University of Texas at Austin has garnered more than 2,000 signatures.

So do we pull down Silent Sam, the rebel soldier standing on McCorkle Place at UNC-Chapel Hill? Do we disassemble the 75-foot obelisk on the Capitol lawn in Raleigh? Do we pack up every bronze tribute on every courthouse lawn?

No.

History is offensive. We should keep it around as a reminder.

“Why do people go to Dachau?” asked Ernest Dollar, who directs the City of Raleigh Museum, referencing the notorious Nazi concentration camp. “Why do people still study it? It is evidence of an evil event, and it is a great way to learn from the past to make sure it never happens again.”

First, if we cleared out all the statues in Raleigh with racist overtones, we’d be left with empty lawns.

Start with George Washington, a slave owner gazing down Fayetteville Street, not to mention from the front of a dollar bill. Do we rename Washington, D.C.?

Then there’s Gov. Charles Aycock, who said in 1903 that the blood of the dominant race flowed in his veins. Today, he lords over a prominent spot on the Capitol lawn.

Josephus Daniels, who once published the newspaper that employs me, actively promoted white supremacy and helped spark the Wilmington riot of 1898 that killed dozens of blacks. He now waves to passing cars on McDowell Street.

For me, there’s a big difference between letting a monument stand in a park and raising a flag over a city. A flag is an active symbol, requiring care and maintenance. A statue is passive, left to the pigeons and the rain.

‘Monument to death’

It is important to remember that whatever your Civil War sympathies, and my ancestors all wore blue, more than 30,000 men from North Carolina died in the fighting — the highest total from any state. The majority of them played no role in secession and owned no slaves. Their families grieved as did the families of any war, and that grief merits a monument.

“It’s a monument to death,” said Larry Tise, history professor at East Carolina University. “To heroic death. Every culture has monuments to heroes, even if they fought in a losing war.

“The Confederate flag to me is very different,” he continued, “almost of the Cold War mentality, and it’s something that really emerged during and after the second world war.”

If anything, we should add to our memorials. Let people know what the luminaries from the past actually said. Let the schoolchildren who climb on those statues downtown know that 100 years ago, we built monuments to men who thought black people were inferior. Let’s try to explain the past with all its mistakes and atrocities rather than hide it in a warehouse somewhere.

New monuments

Better yet, let’s build new monuments to the people we admire — maybe even people who distinguished themselves outside of a war. Gandhi’s statue stands off Morgan Street. Andy Griffith walks with Opie in Pullen Park. If we put up new monuments that reflect our own values, the past won’t seem so threatening.

We won’t be so eager to hide it.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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