The violence in Charlottesville in part was an attempt to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee. According to news reports, there are some seven hundred monuments to various figures and events of the Confederacy, in many cases erected during the twentieth century as an attempt to perpetuate the myth of the Lost Cause — the noble south that lost out to the hordes of the north — and later a resistance to equal rights in the 50s onward.
Supporters of such monuments and of flying the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia claim that those things are “heritage, not hate,” forgetting what it’s a heritage of. But we do have to remember what happened, and remembering for some will be honoring.
Groups line up for and against, and we’re lucky if the controversy remains a battle of ideas. There is, however, an alternative, one that the city of Dayton, Tennessee has been offered by the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
Dayton was the site of the trial of the State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, an event that was itself memorialized by Inherit the Wind, a play and film that got a lot right about the case, while introducing their own ideological spin. Scopes wasn’t sure that he had actually taught evolution and thereby violated state law, though he was willing to say that he did to go along with the town fathers in their desire to bring publicity to Dayton. Things did spiral out of control, and the fight between modernism and humanism on one side against fundamentalism is one that is far from settled today.
The best known member of the prosecution team was William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate, supporter of Prohibition, and advocate late in life of a literalist reading of the Bible. And he has both a college in the area named after him and a statue outside the courthouse where the trial took place, the center of an annual festival commemorating the doings. What the Freedom from Religion Foundation has done is pay to have a statue of Clarence Darrow, leader of the defense, put up finally to remind people that Bryan’s views weren’t the only ones presented.
This is similar to the statue of the girl on Wall Street who confronts the charging bull or the Baphomet monuments that have been proposed as a test of the principle that if we allow one religion’s artwork — Ten Commandment displays, for example — on public property, we must allow all.
In the same way, if we must have statues of Robert E. Lee or other leaders of the war against the United States, then let’s face them with Grant or even more pointedly Sherman and the like. If the message is that we must preserve our heritage, then preserve all of it. Do that because there is a history of good winning over evil in this country — slowly and often at huge cost, never enough that we can declare victory, but the trend is there.
The message that the Klan and their fellow fascists assert only lasts when good people are silent. We cannot shut up the hateful among us, but we can show them how small their numbers are, and we can reframe monuments not as celebrations of hateful deeds, but instead as warnings of what we’ve had to work to overcome and must not return to.
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