By Lori Perkins
Remember that catchy ’79 song, “Video Killed the Radio Star?” in which the act of promoting a product becomes the very thing that killed it? That’s what happened to the Confederacy thanks to the words and actions of the former Commander-in-Chief, although he never could have imagined that his comments would have such a deadly ricochet.
All the myriad lovers of “Southern tradition” and Confederate history saw a national reflection of themselves spewing the excuses and euphemisms that had been taught for centuries. Finally able to see themselves in the bright light of day, they didn’t like what they saw.
As a teen growing up in the 1970s, studying Advanced Placement American History at the Bronx High School of Science, I remember being told that the answer to the question of what were fought over during the Civil War was “State’s Rights.” Being the uppity New York liberal I was, I quickly raised my hand and said the Civil War was about slavery and free labor for the South’s economy. My teacher agreed but warned me that if the question came up on New York’s statewide Regents test for my diploma, or even the Advanced Placement exam, I needed to say it was about “States Rights,” or it would be counted as a wrong answer.
When my family drove from New York to Florida for our Disney World vacations, we would stop in roadside Southern shops along the highway and see T-shirts and belt buckles and lighters emblazoned with Confederate flags. I always said the Confederate flag was equal to a swastika, and I was always told to just keep those thoughts to myself, especially until we got home.
When I wrote a travel guide to Washington, D.C. in the ’90s, I had to visit the 70 or so museums in the nation’s capital and became overwhelmed with the number of statues, monuments and memorials to the Civil War and the Confederacy. (Although I was heartened to learn that Robert E. Lee’s home had been fittingly turned into the grounds of the Arlington National Cemetery and the Civil War dead were interred there, partly to insure that Lee could never return to his home. The grounds of the Lee home had also been a gathering spot for the nation’s slaves returning from the war, who camped out on the grounds).
The glorification of the losing side of the Civil War had always been a bizarre piece of American history for me, but I grew up in New York City, where I was completely unaware that I walked down streets named after Confederate generals. In visits to my father’s family home in Maine, I’d see a statue commemorating “The Brave Men of Camden Who Gave Their Lives In Defence of Their Country During The Great Rebellion 1861-65.” It took me years of driving by this monument to realize it commemorated the Union soldiers in the Civil War. “The Great Rebellion” is more appropriate, but in retrospect is too kind.
For years, we’ve heard arguments that the Confederate flags and the statues of Jackson and Lee, and all the other Confederate Civil War “saints” need to be taken from their pedestals in pubic squares and parks and college campuses and put in museums, or basements, where they belong. But it’s been a tense battle of wills and words and protests — until Charlottesville, where I don’t need to remind you that a woman was killed and 13 people were injured for being at an anti-Confederate monument rally.
The Confederacy, and all it stood for, and all it will ever stand for, ended that day.
Even as I type this, Confederate statues throughout the country are being justifiably toppled, if not physically, then by ordinances voted on in make-shift special council meetings called in the middle of summer. The states that once argued to keep their “heritage” are now clamoring to have it taken down.
Confederate statues were taken down in the middle of the night throughout Baltimore. A Confederate soldier statue was toppled in Durham, N.C. A 113-year-old monument to confederate soldiers was removed from Gainesville, Florida, and a vote in Jacksonville, Florida, ordered all Confederate monuments to be removed. A statue of Jefferson Davis was tarred and feathered in Arizona. Two Lee plaques in Brooklyn were removed and New York City voted to remove the names of Confederate generals from all its street signs and high schools The list goes on and on in Memphis, San Antonio, Boston, Nashville, even as far north as Seattle.
This could never have happened without Donald Trump and his overt racism dressed up in the skirts of “Confederate” white nationalism televised so loudly and proudly for all to see and hear.
As they say in the South, “Well, bless his heart.”