How do we remember but not honor leaders of causes like the Confederacy?
by Allen Best
ASPEN, Colo. – Two years ago this June, a 21-year-old white supremacist slipped into a church in Charleston, S.C., and after praying with the parishioners, all of whom were black, he shot and killed nine of them.
The shooting re-ignited the long-simmering conversation about symbols. The convicted killer, Dylan Roof, had posed for photos with the flag of the Confederacy. While some argued that the flag represented regional pride, others had said no, that the Confederacy was all about preserving slavery, and in particular the slavery of black people.
That conversation continued in 2015 the month after the massacre in a riveting session at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Walter Isaacson, then the chief executive of the Aspen Institute, interviewed jazz giant Wynton Marsalis and Jon Batiste, soon to be the band leader for the Stephen Colbert Show. Isaacson is white, the two musicians are black, but all three are natives of New Orleans.
For decades there had been discussion in New Orleans about whether 19th century statues that paid tribute to Confederate leaders should be toppled. The most prominent statue honors Robert E. Lee, the leading Confederate general, while others honored Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and another general, P.G.T. Beauregard.
Marsalis said he believed the Robert E. Lee statue had to go. Lee had never fought for New Orleans, and the statue was erected decades after the Civil War during a time when whites were abolishing the bi-racial government and re-asserting white supremacy.
A statue at a city’s center should celebrate what that city is about, said Marsalis. A statue honoring a general of the Confederacy, which was first and foremost about preserving slavery, should not be what New Orleans is about.
The principle is true in New Orleans, he went on to say, but also more broadly across the United States.
“Our history has both strains, a strain of terrible and ignorant things and the strain of wonderful things,” Marsalis said. “So the question of our symbols is always important because your symbols will determine what aspect of your personality do you choose to embody.”
We need to choose our symbols well, he went on to say.
“When all of our symbols are a celebration of smallness, it will lead us to doing things that are small. When our symbols are big, they will lead us to big things,” he said.
Later that year, Marsalis wrote an essay that was published in the New Orleans Time Picayune. A longer version of that essay was posted on his website. “I am not a fan of using today’s morality and standards to rename every building and statue of conquerors and people of great achievement because they weren’t also saints. This however, is a different case,” he wrote.
Earlier this month, New Orleans began toppling its statues.
“These monuments have stood not as historic or educational markers of our legacy of slavery and segregation, but in celebration of it,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who had been to Aspen for the Ideas Festival in 2015. “I believe we must remember all of our history, but we need not revere it.”
First to be removed in the dark of night by workers wearing bullet-proof vests was a statue erected to honor the white supremacist of the late 19th century who had imposed segregation and Jim Crow laws. Landrieu called it the most odious of all the statues. Then the Jefferson Davis statue came down, and by the time you read this, those honoring the two generals may have been removed.
In the Aspen area, a resident took to Facebook to share his conflicted feelings. Ken Neubecker said he had ancestors who had fought on both sides of the Civil War, and he thought they all meant well. But those who died fighting for the Confederacy were “wrong, damn wrong, and deserve no such honor as a monument.”
Robert E Lee, if a brilliant soldier and devoted to the South, was also “wrong. Very wrong. He himself recognized that in his last years.”
Even Aspen has a statue on the grounds of the Pitkin County courthouse. It consists of a male soldier, rifle in hand, dressed in what appears to be the clothing and hat of a Union soldier. The text, however, is neutral, honoring “soldiers of 1861-1865.” Megan Cerise Winn, archive technician at the Aspen Historical Society, says the local cemetery has a Civil War section, with soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
In 1901, the Aspen Democrat observed the dwindling number of Civil War veterans. “As the survivors of the rebellion go down one by one into the grave, the bitterness and rancor of those terrible days dwindle away and the bond of good fellowship binds the veterans of the blue and the gray more closely together. All the spite and venom of the days when Yank and Rebel clashed together have died out, and nothing remains but the spirit of brotherly love.”
Perhaps the newspaper spoke too soon.