Knocking the symbols of hate from their pedestals

Photo courtesy of b_watkins under a Creative Commons license.
Photo courtesy of b_watkins under a Creative Commons license.

The statues are finally coming down. Across this nation, 155 years after the end of the Civil War, the symbols of the Confederacy are being vanquished.

Since Memorial Day, when George Floyd gasped his last breath under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, at least 20 Confederate monuments have been removed. Some literally have been knocked off their pedestal by protestors. Others came down at the hands of local officials finally embarrassed by what they represent or fearful of more protest.

It’s about time.

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These are monuments to the leaders and ideals that supported the violent subjugation of human beings. There is no decent argument to keep them standing prominently in town squares, or to continue to fly that rebel flag, or name Army bases, schools, or other institutions for leaders of the “lost cause.”

That cause they represent was protecting the right to own slaves. If that isn’t enough—and it should be—then consider that they represent a traitorous uprising against this country. The Civil War was nothing less than a rebellion against our nation. And the South may claim to have been fighting for state’s right over the might of the federal government, but you’d have to be blind not to see that the states’ right the South was fighting for was the right to own people.

We have allowed the defeated to name the terms and ennoble its lost cause at the expense of the enslaved men and women they chose to subjugate.

It should not have taken the murder of yet another African-American man in police custody to bring down memorials that never should have been erected in the first place. This is not a new battle. And each time it gains steam, it has taken an act of utter horror to serve as a catalyst. We don’t need another Dylann Roof murdering nine African American worshipers in the sanctuary of their own church in 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, for us to do the right thing.

Following the Charlestown shooting, then-Gov. Nikki Haley removed the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina Statehouse. You might think it had flown there continuously since the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter. But no, it was hoisted over the statehouse in 1961 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

You read that right. Not 1861, but 1961.

What on earth were we doing marking the start of a treasonous war?

If we believe in a United States of America, what are we doing honoring a war that tore the country in two? What are we doing honoring the leaders who in any other situation would be considered traitors?

There is only one reason: race. If reminding African-Americans of their continued subjugation long after the first Juneteenth celebration marked their freedom were not at the heart of this, neither our leaders nor we would not have allowed it to continue. But these statues, flags, and names, in the words of then-New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu when he oversaw the removal of Confederate monuments in that city, “are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

Most of the symbols of the Confederacy were not put in place in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. They proliferated during the same time that Jim Crow laws did so across the South, laws enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that made sure to continue suppressing the rights of the black citizens in their midst. We act as if this were ancient history, but segregated water fountains, buses, lunch counters, and their ilk were not officially relegated to the dustbin of history until LBJ signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That is within my lifetime. School and housing segregation, racial profiling, mass incarceration, and voter suppression? They are with us still.

Most of these monuments were projects of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. According to reporting by the Washington Post, the UDC, which was founded nearly 30 years after the end of the Civil War, is responsible for erecting more than 700 monuments and other memorials to the Confederacy. That’s more than any other group.

As Jews, we should understand the power of hateful symbols. A swastika painted on a synagogue sends a message we have no trouble interpreting. After World War II, the Germans themselves certainly understood its meaning; they outlawed the use of the swastika.

But if you seek a powerful lesson on how we can go about handling such symbols, you need look no further than our tradition. In this week’s parsha, Korach, a Levite, along with Dotan and Abiram, descendants of Reuven, challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Undeterred by their opposition, Moses calls them out in front of the community to conduct an offering. Moses announces that if God summons up something “unheard of,” like the earth swallowing up the rebels, the community will know just where God stands on the issue.

No sooner does Moses speak than the earth opens. Korach, Dotan, Abiram, and their families are consumed by the earth, buried alive. Their 250 followers who offered up incense are destroyed by fire, leaving behind only the firepans by which they conducted the offering.

We, along with others around the globe, are toppling these monuments of stone and metal to the men who made their fortunes from slavery or defended the institution. Some have suggested that the statues belong in a museum, where we can add context and provide education. On the surface, it’s not a bad idea. But in execution, I worry that it might send the wrong message, bringing a bunch of Confederate hero statues together and that some people still would find ways to glorify them.

The firepans that remain after Korach’s rebellion, however, are beaten into sheets of metal that become plating for the ark. They are to serve as a constant reminder of the fate of those who dared rebel.

So we can eradicate symbols of toxic leadership, toppling statues of Southern heroes or removing them in a present-day “swallowing up.” Or we can transform them, so they serve as a reminder of all that was wrong with them. What we don’t do, can’t do, is leave them alone.

I’m not sure we can beat more than a century of memorials into something else. There are notable efforts meant to redirect the focus onto the people who suffered most and tell the story of slavery. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and further afield, the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England, through education and outreach — much like Yad Vashem in Israel, the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, to name a few — seek to take the focus off the “power and the glory” and place it where it belongs: on the enslaved men and women and the legacy of that painful institution.

Because it is only through transforming the symbols of hate — maybe even to the point where they are unrecognizable—the black men and woman who have often been nameless and voiceless through history can rightfully tell their story.

About the Author
Marla Cohen is a freelance writer in Rockland County, New York.
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