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OPPOSING VIEWS: We should keep Confederate monuments

Samantha Fisher

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Controversy surrounding the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee as a representation of racism and inequality brought violence and unrest to Charlottesville, Virginia in recent weeks. White supremacy groups, including neo-Nazis, clashed with representatives of Antifa (anti-fascist) and others associated with the Black Lives Matter cause.  Each side violently supported opposing beliefs about General Lee’s position and role in the “war to end slavery.” However, it may be that neither side was particularly well-informed.

As a Colonel in the United States Army, Lee was offered a position as Commanding General in the Union Army by President Lincoln during the tumultuous months leading up to the divide between the North and South. But as a native Virginian, Lee was compelled by his personal interest to defend the commonwealth and could not rationalize fighting against his own state. Despite his military prowess on behalf of the South during the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was not a staunch supporter of slave ownership. While fiercely defensive of Virginia, Lee did not agree with many Confederate values, including the institution of slavery.

In a letter written to his wife, Lee explained his view of slavery. He wrote that slavery is worse for white men than it is for black people. His hope was that black people would ultimately grow as a race and hopefully prepare for greater opportunities in the future. Lee described slavery as a “moral and political evil in any Country.”

Statues of Robert E. Lee have been a source of debate by members of various hate groups – on both sides – for years. But assigning the stigma of all Civil War evils and the perpetuation of slavery to Lee is a mistake.  

These statues are reminders of our nation’s past, which, granted, is not always a source of pride. Many of us take issue with America’s history. But it is just that – history.  Removing the symbols will not erase the story.   

The despicable events of Charlottesville in early August were the tip of the iceberg. The fallout from the violence that befell that city and resulted in at least one death has led to outrage over plaques and statues depicting other historical figures and events deemed offensive to various groups across the country. Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Hudson, Christopher Columbus and Peter Stuyvesant – just to name a few – are all under attack by groups, each outraged by different historical offenses. Even our first President George Washington provokes ire.  

The madness is more rampant than seen in the just the national media. Birmingham Mayor William Bell has ordered a monument commemorating the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors be covered until a decision about its future can be reached. This relatively indecisive measure has resulted in anger from all sides. Additionally, Commissioner Bob Harrison, the only African American on the County Commission, has been unduly criticized for refusing to take a position on the issue.

Birmingham is the only Alabama city openly engaged in the debate. However, of the state’s 67 counties, it is estimated that at least 56 have some form of memorialization to the Confederacy. It should be noted that Montgomery – considered by many to be the heart of the Civil Rights movement – was, 150 years ago, the capital of the Confederacy.  

Tuscaloosa itself played an active role in the Confederate effort. Several local manufacturers produced canons, explosives and clothing for the army. Additionally, The University of Alabama was a military school, responsible in part for preparing 30 military units for battle. A large marble monument memorializing those soldiers stands at the entrance to Greenwood Cemetery. UA is also home to the historic Bryce Hospital, where many injured Confederate soldiers were taken from the battlefields. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey believes that Alabama’s history must be preserved, and correctly so. 

None of the Tuscaloosa memorials are currently under the same scrutiny as the statue in Charlottesville. However, given the anger erupting across the nation, it seems just a matter of time before statues, plaques and even buildings bearing names of people long-gone who may have had some connection with the Confederacy in our University community become the subject of reassignment. Where does it end?  

Our history is part of us. It cannot – and should not — be rewritten, even in the interest of protecting us from harsh realities. We can continue to blame it, if we wish. But I think it is more productive to view history as building blocks on which we continue our goal of erecting a more perfect union. Even as we debate current issues, our home is still the dream to many fleeing hopelessness and oppression in their countries.

The decision to display representations of our history – plaques and statues – should be determined by the communities affected – not the federal government or outside groups. No community is served by the violence incited by neo-Nazi groups and Antifa. Their involvement only results in firing up emotions on both sides, invariably leading to unnecessary damage and bloodshed. 

When placed on the world stage, the United States is a comparatively young nation. Like other countries, our past is marked by greatness and marred by grave mistakes. But we have learned and grown. And unlike almost any other country in the world, we have made huge strides in a remarkably short period of time. This is, for me, what sets the United States apart from almost every other place in the world. We are not perfect. But we strive to be a country that appreciates diversity and ensures equal opportunity. Attempts to rewrite or erase our history are pointless and do us all a disservice. Let history be a teacher. Strive to get the facts straight; celebrate the good and learn from the wrong. Only then, can we move forward.

Samantha Fisher is a sophomore majoring in political science. Her column runs biweekly. 

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OPPOSING VIEWS: We should keep Confederate monuments