The murder of an African-American man, George Floyd, while in police custody on May 25, has spawned national indignation and disgust, perhaps like we've never before experienced in this country, and that indignation and disgust have been manifested in nearly three weeks of massive – and diverse – protest marches from coast to coast.
All the while in the middle of a pandemic.
And, over the course of those several weeks, the focus of the marches has morphed from 400 years of racial injustice and oppression to the review of questionable police tactics toward constitutionally assembled civilians, and now, to Confederate iconography.
Is this social convulsion an indication of a national reawakening? Perhaps a national cleansing? A reformation? Those answers remain to be seen.
As a casual student of Civil War history, I am obliquely interested in the Confederate icons. I admit I've enjoyed my forays to Monument Avenue in Richmond and Fort Sumter in Charleston. But as someone from Pennsylvania who had two great uncles fight in the 153rd Pennsylvania Volunteers and a great, great grandfather who fought in the 129th Pennsylvania Volunteers, I never quite could grasp the memorializing of an army – and thus a grievous cause – that failed.
I understand the romanticism of The Lost Cause myth, which basically says the Confederacy ultimately yielded to superior Union numbers in manpower and industry while valiantly fighting for the preservation of states rights and a way of life (an euphemism for slavery) against hopeless odds. That's fine and dandy from a Southern white man's viewpoint. How's that work if you're black?
It may be useful to listen to the original Confederates themselves on this matter.
Alexander Stephens was the vice president of the Confederacy when he gave his famously infamous Cornerstone Speech at the The Athenaeum in Savannah, GA, on March 21, 1861 – just weeks before the bombardment of Fort Sumter that began the Civil War.
In his extemporaneous speech, which he used to define Confederate ideology after seven states had already seceded from the Union, Stephens said the Confederate government's "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."
Then there's the Declaration of Causes for Secession from South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and Virginia, expanding on the articles of secession presented by all 11 Confederate states. Mississippi, the second state to secede, pulled no punches. Right up front, the second paragraph reads:
"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has long been aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. ..." (See here):
And, there's always the Confederate constitution. (See here for a side-by-side comparison with the United States Constitution.) Take particular note of Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 4 in the Confederate Constitution, which essentially guarantees slavery.
In the past few days, Confederate statues have been falling like soldiers in Pickett's Charge. But maybe it's time to take note of what Robert E. Lee himself had to say about erecting statues to Civil War generals.
In 1869, four years after his surrender, he was asked to attend a meeting between Union and Confederate officers who were considering placing a memorial on the Gettysburg battlefield. Lee wrote: "I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered."
Lee declined the meeting.
Social change, when it occurs, seemingly moves at a glacial pace and mostly in fits and spurts. But it usually moves forward, sometimes forcing a tectonic shift in values and perceptions. I think we're seeing that now.