Confederate Legacy – It’s Complicated

Statue of Robert E. Lee being taken down in New Orleans, LA. Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans, 19 May 2017.

American history is complicated. Greatness happened alongside a shameful history. The debate over Confederate statues highlights this complicated history. Noteworthy men, who perhaps deserve historical footnotes, became that way by not allowing others to be noteworthy, beyond their servitude. Basically, the Confederate statues are monuments to oppression.

Even trying to bring in the contrary argument of “Well, what about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?” speaks to this complicated history of greatness mired with contradictions. While Washington and Jefferson were framers of our Nation and Constitution, they were also slave owners. The simple truth is, the institution of slavery was not only an American thing. It was a copied tactic, much like industry trends of today, that worked its way into the very fabric of this country. Everyone was affected by it, either directly or indirectly, and these facts are now baked into our history.

America was built, literally made, with the help of the slave trade. For over 200 years, hundreds of generations of people were born in, lived in, and died in slavery. It was an American institution.

As bad as our complicated history is, there are distinct differences to the roles some played in it. It is extremely disingenuous to make a comparison between those who fought to maintain a vile practice and those who helped frame the nation itself. Just because our nation’s forefathers were intertwined in our nation’s complicated, yet oppressive, institution of slavery, doesn’t make them equal to those who fought to maintain it. Not the same.

But what of the slaves? What of these generations of people? Why do all those lives, contributions, labor, death, and pain have no memorial outside of museums? There are no statues or schools or parks for them. Did they not contribute to this nation’s strength and greatness? They are as worthy of legacy as Robert E. Lee or Braxton Bragg, yet their accomplishments are silent in the history books, and on state properties. This is all too indicative of their oppression of the past.

The very fact that there is a debate about what to do with statues of Confederates, but there is no discussion about the slaves themselves these men were fighting for, is so telling of our own complicity in this problem, and our part in this complicated history. Amidst this current atmosphere of anger and confusion, the invisible people are not even mentioned.

There is very little praise or public history or story for the slaves at all. Yet names and folklore are attached to those who fought to oppress them. And is that ok? Of course not.
There should be no references outside of a museum to the so-called “heroes” of the Confederacy. The moral compass in this country was clearly pointed in another direction at that time, and we should not celebrate those who wanted to turn that dial backward.

I have no issue with our country’s complicated history, nor the recognition of it. I understand it because it defines my own. To pay homage, however, to those who fought to maintain an oppressive form of life on other human beings is not in keeping with this country’s better angels. The problem is more than just statues themselves; it’s that they arrogantly misrepresent lives and stories that have never been told.

If one history from that time is suppressed, suppress it all. All Confederate statues should come down. That is one positive step we can take in distancing ourselves from our nation’s bad history, once and for all, and eradicating the virus of racism.

It’s complicated.

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Ron Lee has a 20 year background in military broadcast journalism and Public Affairs with the United States Army. His career has spanned a 15 year stint on Active duty as well as National Guard and Army Reserve time. He graduated from University of Maryland University College with a Bachelor’s degree in Communications and a Master’s degree in Public Relations Management. Public Affairs is his passion and he is still involved with the Department of Defense as a government contractor for public affairs. 

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