History shouldn’t be erased, but made more accurate and complete

The statue of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan outside the old Fayette County Courthouse was erected in 1911 as part of a well-organized Confederate memorial movement. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The statue of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan was erected in front of the old Fayette County Courthouse in 1911 at the behest of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Taxpayers paid $7,500 of the $15,000 cost after private fundraising efforts fell short. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

I went to see Gone With The Wind last week at the Kentucky Theatre, the same place where I saw it the first time almost five decades ago.

The 1939 movie is a classic, and quite entertaining. As a credible account of history, though, it is laughable. Given modern views about racial equality, parts of it are downright offensive.

What I knew this time, but not the first, was that Gone With The Wind was the ultimate expression of how the Civil War’s losers fought long and hard to win the battle for collective memory.

By spinning history and erecting hundreds of monuments across the South, Confederate veterans, their descendants and sympathizers sought to sanitize, romanticize and mythologize the rebel legacy. It became a noble “lost cause” of gallant cavaliers, Southern belles, moonlight and magnolias.

Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves but fought out of loyalty to their state. But the ugly fact is that the Confederacy’s main goals were to preserve an economy based on slavery and a society grounded in white supremacy.

As Robert Penn Warren, the grandson of a Confederate veteran, wrote in his great 1961 essay, The Legacy of the Civil War, “When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.”

As desegregation and civil rights began roiling America in the 1940s, many Southern whites embraced Confederate symbolism again, with a nasty twist. They added the battle flag on their state flags, flew it from public buildings and waved it in defiance.

Over the next half-century, discrimination was outlawed and racism became less socially acceptable. Confederate symbolism became more benign — at least to white people. Many now see the rebel flag as a symbol of “heritage not hate” and of regional pride and identity.

Besides, since so many outsiders look down on Southerners, we like being rebels, with or without a cause.

But the racist massacre at a Charleston, S.C., church has forced us to confront the fact that the Confederate flag has been tainted by racism as surely as the ancient swastika was by Nazism.

We also are re-evaluating the propriety of state-sanctioned monuments to the Confederacy. Should they stay, or should they go? It’s a complicated question.

A CNN/ORC poll surveyed 1,017 Americans last week and found that 57 percent see the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride, 33 percent see it as a symbol of racism and 5 percent see it as both. But there was a stark racial divide: while 66 percent of whites think it symbolizes pride, only 17 percent of blacks see it that way.

Interestingly, though, a majority of both blacks and whites said they were against renaming streets and highways that honor Confederate leaders.

That finding is pertinent to Kentucky, a divided slave state that remained in the union but embraced Confederate identity after the war, amid decades of racist violence.

What should be done with the Jefferson Davis statue in the state Capitol rotunda? Move it to a museum.

The physical heart of state government should be a place to honor Kentuckians of the past whose lives and ideals set examples for the future. There are many more worthy of that honor than the Confederate president.

What about the statues beside the old Fayette County courthouse of Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate raider, and John C. Breckinridge, a former U.S. vice president who became a Confederate general and secretary of war?

The Davis statue, placed in the Capitol in 1936, and Morgan statue, placed on what was then the courthouse lawn in 1911, have similar histories: they were erected at the behest of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Breckinridge’s statue went up in 1887. State taxpayers subsidized the cost of all three statues.

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning will host a free public forum at 6 p.m. Tuesday to discuss these issues. Mayor Jim Gray is to be among the speakers.

To me, these two monuments present a more complicated situation than the Davis statue. The old courthouse is no longer a seat of government, but a space used to commemorate Lexington’s history. For better or worse, those men, their statues and the forces that put them there are significant parts of that history.

This is what I would do: leave Morgan where he is, but rewrite the historical marker to say that some thought he was a hero while others considered him a terrorist. And explain that this statue played a big role in the influential Confederate memorial movement.

As for Breckinridge, I would move him to the back of the old courthouse lawn. That is where, in 2003, a long-overdue historical marker was placed to explain that one-fourth of Lexington’s residents were held in bondage by 1860, and this was the spot where slaves were publicly whipped.

At the Main Street entrance to Cheapside park, where Breckinridge now stands, I would erect a significant memorial to those slaves and the abolitionists who fought for their freedom. It also should explain that Cheapside was once one of the South’s leading slave markets.

History should not be erased or forgotten, because it holds important lessons for the present and future. But we owe it to ourselves to make the retelling of that history accurate and complete.

  • If you go
  • What: Forum on race, Lexington’s history with slavery and Confederate statuary and symbolsWhen: 6-8 p.m. July 7
  • Where: Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 W. Second St.
  •  More information: Carnegiecenterlex.org or (859) 254-4175


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