Are you afraid?
It was an era when those protesting for civil rights had moved from nonviolent techniques to more confrontational stances, and the nightly news carried stories and photos of clashes in cities across the country between the police and protesters. The tribal nature of our communities was coming into focus for everyone to see. While we lived on Main Street, our neighborhood was mixed both economically and racially. And here I was, playing pickup basketball on a local court, when a player on the opposing team asked me that question.
He wanted me to acknowledge that I was the only person scuffling around on the asphalt, shooting at hoops with torn nets and battered backboards, who was not African American. The question insinuated that I should feel out of place and uncomfortable and was followed by another: Don’t you feel scared?
Playing on the local courts as a young teenager with whatever group of neighborhood kids came along was just what I did. “No,” I replied. I knew most of these guys, and several were in my classes. Yet somehow the question arose and I was pushed to confront it. While I thought, my opponent blew by me for an easy layup, and my education in both privilege and sports continued.
I’ve thought about that conversation many times since the late 1960s. It came to mind briefly in 2008 when Business Week magazine included my hometown, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, as one of the best places in the country to raise children. My initial response to the Business Week article was that if they’d just asked me, I could have told them about Murfreesboro’s attributes a long time ago. But that 2008 response has become more nuanced with reflection and time. And that basketball court conversation has come up again during the current protests, including in Murfreesboro, over racial injustice and the symbols of privilege and white supremacy,
I had a pretty idyllic childhood, and Murfreesboro’s history — which was very real and very present to me as a child — is one reason. It was also a history that challenged me as I grew older, and continues to challenge me today.
I’m challenged by the fact that I could walk four blocks to the town square and visit the 1850s courthouse, which had a plaque affixed to the wall that served as a reminder of the notorious Nathan Bedford Forrest and his 1862 raid on the city, and not give a great deal of thought to what that history meant to my basketball teammates and their families. Yes, Forrest’s brutal military tactics, including war crimes at Fort Pillow, made him an unusually harsh model of the great but flawed Southern leaders who were part of the air I breathed. I preferred to read Douglas Southall Freeman‘s biography of the noble Robert E. Lee and listen to my grandmother and her friends in the United Daughters of the Confederacy talk about the Lost Cause. But Lee and Forrest were all part of the same rebellion working toward the same goals. It wasn’t until I was into my high school years that I began to face facts and shake free of that hagiography.
I’m also challenged by the Johnny Reb statue, erected in 1901 next to the courthouse in the first wave of Southern restoration and Jim Crow resistance and known – with no sense of irony – as the “Guardians of Peace” memorial. It was almost invisible to me as a child, such was my privilege and superficial understanding of the messages being sent by this sentinel, gazing to the north, ready to battle our nation’s government and repel the next invasion.
And notwithstanding the light anti-war sentiments in the statue’s official history, if you don’t think those who erected the monument were prepared to fight another invasion as they did in The War of Northern Aggression — the preferred name for the Civil War in many a white Southerner’s heart during my childhood — then you’ve missed the nearby tablet teaching readers about “The Square During Occupation“: a tablet that refers to the American military as an occupying force in Murfreesboro, which was bravely defended by the Confederates.
So how do we deal with the challenge of the proposed removal of Confederate memorials and iconography, especially those that were not erected to honor the dead but that exist to glorify and reinforce white supremacy, put in place a full generation or more after the end of the war?
I have some sympathy with those who worry about the “erasure of history” with the removal of monuments. Some sympathy, but not much in this case.
The history portrayed by those monuments of the Southern restoration period told a false story. As a result, the erased history isn’t what is happening today with the removal of the monuments; instead, the erased history is what happened more than 150 years ago, beginning shortly after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
The whole Lost Cause narrative was to change the story from the South’s defense of slavery — of owning other human beings and treating them as property — to one that puts forward the Southern cause as noble, in defense of states rights, and with leadership that stood as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry. Those noble southerners, so the changed and false story goes, were defeated by the Union armies through numerical and industrial force that overwhelmed the South’s superior military skill and courage. Defenders of keeping the Confederate monuments today often add that they are about “heritage, not hate.”
But that easy slogan is just not true. The groups that erected the monuments and the Southern historians who wrote during this period simply erased the history of slavery from the record books. They erased the story of hate. If you look at the words of those who led the secession movement, it is clear that it was all about slavery. Don’t trust me, read what they said:
- South Carolina’s Declaration of secession concluded with an invitation to form “a Confederacy of Slaveholding States.”
- Mississippi, not to be outdone, said in their declaration that “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.
- And, of course, the Constitution of the Confederacy — which was ratified by Tennessee and the other 10 CSA states — explicitly stated that “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”
Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, made one of the most explicit ties between slavery and secession when he told a Savannah, Georgia, crowd in 1861 in what’s now known as the “Cornerstone Speech,” that,
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas [as those of slavery foes]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
He went further: the battle over slavery “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis didn’t really appreciate Stephens saying the unspoken reasons out loud, but there it is.
The serious scholarship and records show that the Confederacy was formed to protect slavery, and the leaders knew they were committing treason against the United States. And if the statues that were erected after the Southern restoration of the late 19th century were about something other than white supremacy, then why are there three times as many Confederate monuments as Union monuments in Maryland, which was a Union state and sent three times as many men to fight for the Union as for the Confederacy? Why was there — until recently — a Confederate memorial in Montana, which did not even become a state until 1889 some 24 years after the Civil War ended? These monuments were part of a systematic movement to change the national narrative, erase history, and make the case for white supremacy.
And I’m fascinated by the strange monument career of James Longstreet.
Delaware historian Kevin Brown asks, “Why isn’t Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet chiseled into Stone Mountain, Georgia rather than two Virginians and a Mississippian?”
“Longstreet won the greatest Confederate victory in the west in Georgia at Chickamauga. Longstreet was a Confederate hero, Robert E. Lee’s second-in-command, and actually a Georgian for most of his life. Why does he have so few statues (Longstreet has two statues, one at the site of his home in Gainesville, Georgia and one at the Gettysburg battlefield) when Lee, Jackson, Forrest, etc. have dozens?”
Well, the answer is obvious if you know the story. Longstreet — who was a friend of U.S. Grant and actually attended his wedding — supported civil rights for Blacks after the war and led mixed race forces against the white supremacists at the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans in 1874. Longstreet sought to heal the wounds of the Civil War through his actions, Professor Brown notes; something that Lee is often given undue credit for, but that Longstreet actually did.
I think about all this as I reflect on my childhood in Murfreesboro and how I came to face that question when I was suddenly in the minority, and staring — if only for a brief minute — at the situation that was reality for those who weren’t so lucky to be born white, Southern Baptist, and straight in the 1960s South. They were often scared and afraid, for good reason.
As I’ve think about my hometown, I see Johnny Reb on the courthouse square and know that my friends and teammates on the playground understood the message his presence was sending, even if I remained clueless for much too long. And I listen today to those who did understand that message and lived with the consequences.
Scales Funeral Home was three-to-four blocks from our house on Main Street. I went to high school with the children of the owner, Robert “Tee-Niny” Scales, who was also the first African American to be elected to City Council in Murfreesboro. Councilman Scales went on to serve as Vice Mayor, his wife Mary was the first African American faculty member at Middle Tennessee State University, and his daughter Madelyn now fills the Vice Mayor’s seat.
Madelyn Scales Harris tells the story that she was eight years old when a white man spit on her because he didn’t like the color of her skin. The man kept walking as her brothers ran inside to get their dad. Many years later her father — a respected leader of the city’s African American community — told Madelyn that he had to make a choice between going after that man that day or living to see her grow up.
There’s always been a harshness that I just didn’t see.
I wonder how much thought the editors of Business Week gave to what it feels like to raise a child in a community where the seat of government is still guarded by a symbol of the soldiers who fought to keep one class of citizens enslaved. Did they think about how, a century later, white men still felt it was okay to spit on black children? Did they consider the ingrained racial injustices in our communities, systemic injustices that we are now facing following the death of George Floyd and so many others? I look at controversies over Confederate statues and consider how I would respond if I was in the minority, beyond for just an hour or so on a blacktop basketball court.
I’ll admit that it took me too long to come to this conclusion, but like other preservationists, I “support the removal of Confederate monuments from our public spaces when they continue to serve the purposes for which many were built — to glorify, promote, and reinforce white supremacy, overtly or implicitly.”
We more than owe that to our fellow citizens who have walked in the suffocating shadow of Johnny Reb for far too long.
In thinking about a good place to raise a child, Business Week may have gotten it right…but maybe only for part of us. Children need to live in places that foster a sense of community and fairness. Places that foster and support a sense of real conversation. Places where everyone has a chance to earn a living with a fair wage. Places where all are valued and everyone’s story is worthy and worth telling. Places where Black Lives Matter as much as other lives. Places for everybody.
More to come…
Image: Rutherford County Courthouse in Murfreesboro, Tennessee