I, too, once loved those statues, not so long ago.
I thought they stood for resilience and pride, for the other side of every story, for a nation grappling with the sorrows of its own rending. I saw the generals as gentlemen, protectors, reluctantly orchestrating an inevitable but tragic conflict of brother against brother. Imagining the people who erected the monuments, I felt I could draw from them some of the strength and stubbornness and grit that form part of my Southern identity.
I never thought much about what they meant to black people.
I know now that blithely holding these opinions made me complicit in white supremacy, and for that I am deeply sorry. To root them out, I also need to know where they came from.
I grew up as comfortably surrounded by the Confederate flag as by country music and honeysuckle. It all seemed to be of a piece: front-porch hospitality, hard work, a slow drawl, church on Sundays, respect for elders and for the past, wrapped up in that red-white-and-blue banner so recently emblazoned on Georgia’s own flag. Perhaps I identified with a struggle against forces and norms brought in by faceless outsiders, as my own county transformed from a sleepy agricultural town into a crowded strip-mall suburb.
The version of history I absorbed gave me a skewed vision of the causes of the Civil War and allowed me to project romantic ideas onto the soldiers who fought in it. By turns, it sometimes minimized slavery and sometimes emphasized the brutality of the institution, seeming to imply that such barbarism was a foreign relic of the far-distant past. The history I grew up to believe taught that the war had had many complex causes, was led by heroes and great men on both sides, and ended only because of a campaign of civilian terror akin to the bombing of Hiroshima.
The history I grew up with, including a full year of Georgia history in the eighth grade, literally erased the lynching of two black men in the town square two blocks away and the subsequent expulsion by fire of every black family in the county. Our county, only 30 minutes north of Atlanta, remained 95% white and 4% Hispanic.
People who display contempt for ignorance seem to conveniently forget that education is a privilege. The monuments attempted to reframe history for those who came after, and it worked. Should it be a surprise that the effects of such propaganda can’t be reversed in a day?
I am blessed now to live in the information age, to benefit from the work of Patrick Phillips, who wrote down the story of the lynching, and to have had years of higher education.
I have been blessed now to learn, not only that the meaning of a symbol to me is irrelevant if others perceive it differently, but also that the monuments I once associated with a resilient and chastened Reconstruction have in fact always represented white supremacy.
I’ve been blessed with black friends who have borne with—and challenged me to remediate—my ignorance of black history, life, and cultures.
I’ve recognized that white supremacy not only terrorizes black people but also binds us all, in ways ranging from the societal issues we hate to admit to the loss we endure when we shut out the beauty of diversity.
Most of all, I’ve been both blessed and decimated by the Gospel my former teachers themselves held so dear. I’ve discovered that the God Who Sees is with and for the oppressed from Genesis to Revelation to the Age of Trump. I have learned that shalom is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice, and that none of us will rest in it until all of us do. Spirit has persistently demanded from me my “right” to my own perspective; when someone tells me they are hurt and afraid, I recognize instead my duty to believe them.
And with the help of my ever-so-Southern Sunday school teachers, old hymns, and verses memorized, Spirit has also pried from my hands my deep investment in believing myself innocent. No Hebrew Bible author would be surprised that the sins of my forefathers have been visited upon me; and no person who’d spent a lick of time with Jesus would advise me to try and heal myself before turning to him. After a lifetime hearing that the sin sickening the world resided first and foremost in my own heart, here, in the unveiling of white supremacy, was the strongest objective evidence I’d ever encountered. Thanks be to God, Christ has compassion for Pharisees, Roman soldiers, and idolaters! Thanks be to God, we all could yet be free!
This does not mean that it has been easy or painless to excise every once-”harmless” monument to white supremacy from my own heart; in fact, it has been one of the most grievous struggles of my life, and it is not over. But where each one has fallen, freedom, truth, and love have rushed in to fill the space, and with every wrenching shift in perspective, there has also been ever-deeper compassion and the wildest, radical hope. I pray this will become the great struggle of my generation, to dethrone the idols of white supremacy and replace them with the sacrifices of repentance, justice, and worship in truth. Thanks be to God, we all could yet be free.