Recently, protesters took down the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the high school that bears his name in Montgomery, AL. The U.S. Navy banned all public displays of the Confederate flag, as did NASCAR (yes, I was shocked, too.) And I’ve seen some social media posts describe the removal of these monuments as “erasing history.”
Well… let’s do a little dive into these things.
I’m the director of a documentary film called Remembering Anarcha, and in the film, one of our interviewees – former Alabama State Senator Hank Sanders – says, “Memorials are not history.”
He explains that history is what happened, whereas memorials are symbols that don’t tell the whole story. And personally, as I state in an email that I’ll share below, I think it is important for us, as a society, to carefully examine the parts of history we honor versus the parts of history that we learn from in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past.
On to the email…
After the Lee statue was removed, a petition was started on Change.org to convince the school board to not return the statue to its pedestal.
A Facebook event was created for people to attend the next Montgomery Public Schools (MPS) board meeting, which then became a Facebook live event (COVID-19, y’all.) The point was to contact and petition the board to keep the Lee statue down, but to also try to rename at least three of the high schools around Montgomery that had been named for Confederates – Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Sidney Lanier.
Below is the email I sent to the MPS board member that serves my district:
Dear [MPS board member]
As a resident of your school board district and an alum of Jefferson Davis High School, I am writing to you to ask that the board not return the statue of Robert E. Lee to its pedestal. In fact, I am requesting that the board go a step further and submit a waiver to the Alabama Memorial Preservation Committee to immediately change the names of the high schools named for Lee, Sidney Lanier, and my alma mater, J.D.
I think it is important for us, as a society, to carefully examine the parts of history we honor versus the parts of history that we learn from in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past.Also, when it comes specifically to Confederate monuments, the time period that most of those were put up is telling, along with them being used to promote the fictional “Lost Cause” narrative. If you have not already seen it, I highly recommend taking seven minutes to watch this short documentary that Vox produced on the subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOkFXPblLpU
I think that MPS should resolve to be inclusive and forward-thinking, and to use this opportunity to teach, not just students but the larger Montgomery community, the real history behind these monuments and the reasons that removing them and changing the names of these schools is the right and honorable thing to do.
First of all, for real, take the seven minutes to watch that Vox video. It’s very interesting. Pay special attention to the time period that most statues were put up. It’s telling. It really is.
And this brings another issue. In 2017, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act that protects statues and monuments that have been in place for 40 years or longer.
That act comes up in Remembering Anarcha as well. The statue of J. Marion Sims at the Alabama Capitol (seen at the top of this post) was erected in 1939 by the Alabama Medical Association, then called the “Medical Association of the State of Alabama,” which author J.C. Hallman (who appears in the film) says in a recent Montgomery Advertiser article, “which is cursed — though one wonders if this was once by design — by the acronym, MASA.”
The bottom line is: the Civil War was about slavery.
“No! It was about states’ rights!” (um… states’ rights to own slaves.)
“But it was about economics!” (yeah, the economics of slavery.)
Here’s some reading material:
And I encourage you to read some of the “Declarations of Immediate Causes” that the Southern state legislatures drew up and voted on. They list clearly their reasons for leaving the Union, and guess what they mention as a big ol’ primary reason – slavery.
Here’s Mississippi’s. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.”
Here’s South Carolina’s. “But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.”
(The word “slavery” comes up in other places as well in that one… oh, and South Carolina also has a statue of Sims on their statehouse grounds.)
But seriously, read them. Find the other states’ reasons for leaving. It’s their words, from their time period. It was about slavery.
Let’s stop – finally – promoting the “Lost Cause” bullshit that’s been fed to most of us Southerners from the time we were born. Let’s learn. Let’s evolve. Let’s stop with the Confederate monument participation trophies that glorify people who wanted to keep human beings enslaved.
Let’s learn from history and stop trying to rewrite it like we’ve seen done since the end of the Civil War.