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Monuments to Treason

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Across the country in the wake of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in support of a confederate statue slated for removal, cities have begun to wake up and take action to remove confederate statues and monuments within their own jurisdictions.

On the night of August 15, the city of Baltimore removed all of its confederate statues.

In Gainesville, Florida, a confederate monument outside a county government building wastaken down on August 14. On July 19, the Tampa Bay City Council in Florida voted to remove a Confederate monument off government property. The Jacksonville’s City Council has begun to call for all Confederate monuments in the city to be taken down.

The Mayor of Lexington, Kentucky noted on August 12 that he is taking action with the city council to remove two confederate monuments from a former city courthouse.

The City of New Orleans in Louisiana took down four Confederate monuments earlier this year, including a large statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in May 2017.

In Durham, North Carolina, activists toppled over a Confederate Statue on government property this past weekend.

These are modest steps forward to progress, but more cities and states must take action to remove Confederate Statues and Monuments on Government Property, and relegate the Confederate Flag to it’s only proper context, in historical museums. At least 700, and estimated at over 1,000 Confederate monuments, statues, and flags reside on public property in 31 states. In 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 1,503 Confederate symbols in public spaces, but noted that their study was not as comprehensive as it should be to come up with a complete, accurate number for how prolific these symbols are on public property, from parks to government buildings.

What’s commonly referred to as the Confederate Flag is actually a variant of this flagdesigned by a former Charleston Mayor who advocated for re-opening the slave trade, and was adopted by Confederate General Robert E. Lee as the battle flag of the army of North Virginia. Both General Lee and the flag became the most abundant symbols of the Confederacy, and the recent white supremacist rally in opposition to removing a General Lee statue is a testament to that and the racist hate these symbols represent.

The “battle flag” was resurrected by Ku Klux Klan members as a racist symbol of resistance to civil rights. In 1948, Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) used the flag as a symbol for his presidential campaign, underscoring his pledge to overtly uphold white supremacy.

The elevation of General Robert E. Lee serves as a similar propaganda tool as the culturally coded Confederate Flag, to whitewash the Confederacy as noble and propagate the false narrative that states rights, not slavery, was the cause for the civil war. Adam Sewer wrote in July 2017 for the Atlantic on the false historical narrative in trying to transform Confederate General Robert E. Lee into a mythical figure that should be revered,  “white supremacy does not ‘violate’ Lee’s “most fundamental convictions. White supremacy was one of Lee’s most fundamental convictions. Lee was a slaveowner—his own views on slavery were explicated in an 1856 letter that it often misquoted to give the impression that Lee was some kind of an abolitionist.”

These symbols represent the “lost cause” of the Confederacy for white supremacists, while simultaneously representing trauma, injustice, tyranny, and pain for black people, the victims of slavery, who still experience the harsh realities imposed on them by racial inequality. This pain is reinforced and re-inflicted by institutional racism on a daily basis. While it may have taken a disturbing event like the white supremacy on full display in Charlottesville last weekend to expose what these confederate symbols represent, its provide an opportunity for people to reflect freely on why these symbols have been propped up and accepted within our society for so long.

As Langston Hughes wrote in a 1936 poem,

“O, let America be America again

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.”

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Michael Sainato’s writing has appeared in the Guardian, Miami Herald, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, Buffalo News, the Hill, Alternet, and several other publications . Follow him on twitter: @MSainat1

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