Wednesday morning, marble workers began preparing to remove a wart from the Lowndes County Courthouse lawn.
The Confederate monument, standing on the public square for more than 100 years as a reminder of exactly what its proponents mean when they talk about the “good ol’ days,” is moving to Friendship Cemetery. At Friendship, where both Union and Confederate soldiers are buried and a site renowned as the birthplace of Memorial Day, it will find a more appropriate home and a much more appropriate context. The community groundswell that brought relocating the monument to the forefront is a credit to new generations of people progressing with the times and demanding — fairly and peacefully — much-needed change.
However, as photos flooded my email inbox, my phone and my Facebook newsfeed celebrating the impending “dismantling” of what has long stood as a racist symbol, I couldn’t help being reminded of the opening line from “Fallen,” a Denzel Washington classic, in which the narrator says, “I want to tell you about the time I almost died.”
Spoilers for those who haven’t seen the 1998 film and still want to, but the narrator is a demon that possesses living things to do its bidding. Washington’s character — the hero, of course — spends two hours fighting to defeat the demon and dies at the end thinking he has succeeded. But the cunning demon finds a way to survive and continue its work.
Such has always been the arc of white supremacy in this country, especially in the South. For every vigorous movement meant to propel society forward, for every victory against oppression meant to usher in something more like equality, the system finds a way to bend without breaking — to draw new battle lines and continue the fight.
Slavery, once it was abolished with the aid of a Civil War that killed nearly 1 million people, was replaced with Jim Crow laws and lynchings. The Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s helped end segregation in public spaces, including public schools. Soon private schools popped up all over Jim Crow land with the expressed purpose of reclassifying the true “supreme white” as one who was unwilling to let their children attend school with Black children and could pay the freight to keep them from it.
Some schools still teach children that slavery was more humane than the liberal Yankees lead people to believe and that the “War of Northern Aggression” was about states’ rights, not the rights of white people to own Black people. Celebrations of the antebellum era abundant in the South tend to focus on the beautiful architecture of the day and do little to nothing to educate on the horrors of plantation life — outside of an obligatory, muffled acknowledgment of something like, “and those over there are the slave quarters. Now, let’s move along.” Columbus, to its credit, has made some strides to break away from this pattern in its Pilgrimage celebrations, sometimes having entire tours centered on the Black antebellum experience.
I love to hear when other white people make the argument, “well, I never owned any slaves.” Because in states that still celebrate Confederate Memorial Day, the white leaders there are telling you, “We sure would own some, though, if it was still legal.”
Nationally, we still see racial oppression in both subtle and blatant forms. Voter ID laws and other voter suppression tactics are part of the modern Jim Crow effort to minimize Black participation in society. So are a criminal justice system that for decades has disproportionately incarcerated Black people, and a law enforcement system that continues to take armed white gunmen away in handcuffs and haul unarmed Black people off in body bags. And we haven’t even touched issues like access to housing and health care.
It’s good the Mississippi flag changed to remove the Confederate battle emblem. Seeing the Confederate monument leaving the courthouse lawn is another positive step. Proponents of racial equality, both Black and white, should celebrate the victories without getting drunk on them. Tactical retreats of racist symbols do not make a post-racial society.
What will help, regardless of your race, to promote equality: continuing to vote and encouraging young people to register, despite the obstacles; continuing to speak truth to power and demand for leaders/law enforcement to be held accountable when they are complicit or engage in racial injustices; and, most importantly, emphasizing the role of education, starting with ourselves and our children.
Being honest about our past is a key part of that education. If we commemorate the Confederacy, let’s demand a standard that talks about it in real, non-romanticized terms. In looking at the antebellum era, maybe we can add to ogling the pretty columns the work of learning about the uglier side of that life. If we must keep these Rebel monuments at all, let’s regard them as relics of the cautionary tale they really represent.
If all that moves are the monuments, the demon of white supremacy will continue laughing at us about “the time I almost died.”
Zack Plair is managing editor of The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]