JAMES LEUTZE: Take down the statues; Time for intolerance toward racism, neo-Nazis, alt-right
Posted August 24
Editor's note: James Leutze is chancellor emeritus of UNC-Wilmington and was a professor of history at UNC Chapel Hill, specializing in military history. He is author of “Entering North Carolina: Turn Clocks Back 100 Years,” a reflection on the historic connections between North Carolina’s post-Civil War politics and today’s.
Those who learn only a little bit from history are doomed to get it wrong. Those who use history to defend their argument should be careful. History is complicated and multilayered because it is the story of man’s experience. There is seldom one reason things happen: Think about why you fall in love. Only a fool says “it was her eyes.” If it was, it is likely a short romance.
Why was there a civil war? It was a combination of reasons. Slavery had to be high on the list for some people. I say had to be because so many rich people were heavily invested in slaves. I say some because so many other people didn’t own slaves. As always in national affairs, politics and economics had to play a role. The nuances of states’ rights were and are a subject on which honest men could differ. Religion played a large role particularly on the part of abolitionists.
Intimately connected to slavery was an attitude of racial superiority. How else could you justify one man owning another?
So the Civil War came. Hundreds of thousands of men gave their lives and hundreds of thousands of other, particularly in the South, suffered the cruel lash of war.
Despite the bravery of Southern troops, they lost. It remained the task of others to put the South back together again. Unfortunately for some, the only way to do it was to ignore the lessons of war and defy the laws resulting from it regarding racial equality. This brought about the dismal period of “Reconstruction” marked by night raiders, the KKK and lynchings. It was an all out effort to turn back the clock. Racism was central to the effort this time. Hundreds of the North Carolina monuments were erected during this period.
At the height of Reconstruction there was a determined effort to put a heroic face on those who fought on the Confederate side. Statues to Confederate military figures were part of the effort. Monuments were erected all over the South, particularly in public spaces like the courthouse lawns. They were more than monuments to Confederate heroes; they were prominent reminders – warnings -- to black citizens of who was now in charge. In the North, interestingly, there were not that many monuments to the men who had won the war. The difference was that the monuments in South weren’t about the sacrifices of the war but the urgency of Reconstruction and imposing segregation.
We have reached a turning point in our history. Black people will no longer tolerate being confronted by warning signals erected during a period of racial oppression. At the same time Southerners who honor those whom they see as defending the South and their way of life resist removing these monuments.
If they truly knew the history and the temper of the times when these monuments were erected, they might better understand African-Americans’ feelings.
As we hope this conflict turns into a “teachable moment” about Reconstruction, what should we do with those statues? Why not move them to the battlefields where this war was fought? At least let’s move them from the prominent public locations they now grace. How about a sculpture garden at the Museum of the Confederacy?
Taking down the statues is the beginning. We must at the same time change our attitudes toward the racism and bigotry that brought pain to so many of our fellow citizens. We need an attitude of intolerance toward contemporary racism, toward neo-Nazis, toward the alt-right and those who hide from its ugliness.
As New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said: "This is not about statues, this is about our attitudes and behavior as well. If we take down these statues and don’t change to become a more open and inclusive society this would have been in vain.”