Removing monuments can open the dialogue, but coping with our painful history is necessary for reconciliation

June 5, 2020 12:01 am

Protesters call for Governor Ralph Northam to come out and answer their questions outside Capitol Square in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

–William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, 1951

Finally – after 401 years of bondage, bloodshed, a Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynchings and institutionalized discrimination – Virginia has begun to deal with America’s original sin.

Thursday’s announcements that Richmond’s Confederate monuments are coming down are significant and a good beginning.

But a beginning is all it is.

The historic weight of the moves by Richmond’s mayor and Virginia’s governor can’t be overestimated. On one momentous day, they renounced longstanding totems of the South’s treasonous insurrection that have punctuated the city’s signature parklike boulevard for a century or more.

“That statue has been there a long time. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now. So we’re taking it down,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in announcing that the state has already begun preparations to remove the Robert E. Lee monument, the only one it owns.

Gov. Ralph Northam outlined plans Thursday to remove a state-owned statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Glory, glory! Hallelujah!

It is an important action that opens doors. It evidences an embryonic level of understanding and, at last, prepares a way for the necessary conversations about our tormented past that we must have if the United States is ever to live up to the noble words of its Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

It is, however, a move that will bring challenges. Don’t imagine that the same dark forces that brought deadly violence to Charlottesville in August 2017 won’t attempt one last stand to spare monuments to the depraved and defeated slaveholding oligarchy they openly admire.

The real heavy lifting of reconciliation, however, will be honest conversations informed by the painful truth of our tormented racial history.

“I believe in a Virginia that studies its past in an honest way,” Northam said. “And I believe that when we … take that honest look at our past, we must do more than just talk about the future.”  

Knowing the pain black people have endured these several centuries may be impossible for white people, but we can’t let a towering learning curve keep us from trying. That applies particularly to me, a product of white privilege born into a segregated South around the time that a 14-year-old black child named Emmett Till was lynched by white men who claimed he had flirted with a white woman. The U.S. Supreme Court had declared “separate but equal” public schools unconstitutional and Virginia had disgracefully sought to countermand the decision with “Massive Resistance.”

I attended the University of Mississippi a decade after deadly campus riots forced President John Kennedy to use U.S. marshals and the 101st Airborne to admit its first African-American student, James Meredith. As a football player there in the 1970s, I marveled then at the grace of black teammates whose on-field heroics were celebrated with tens of thousands of small Confederate battle flags waving in the stands as a marching band played “Dixie.” (Ole Miss banished the flags and the song years ago, but its teams are still nicknamed Rebels.)

Exposing the lies buttressing the Old South “Lost Cause” mythology that was widely taught as history in public schools for generations is a prerequisite to progress.

Take it from a grandson of slaves who has lived nearly 90 years of that history:

“It’s always a question of education,” L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor and a former Richmond mayor, said in a Virginia Mercury interview.

“The problem we have is that American history has never been taught to Americans,” he said. “I am not talking about adding a black history course. I am talking about telling the damn truth in all our history about what has happened for the 400 years black people have been here!”

Without a common understanding of that truth, he said, little progress can be made addressing the current conditions of black America that exploded into protests nationally after the ghastly videotaped police killing of George Floyd in broad daylight on a Minneapolis street.

Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. (Style Weekly)

And there is so much to address.

Median annual household income for African Americans in 2018 stood at just over $41,000 compared to $70,642 for whites. Nearly nine white students receive four-year bachelor’s degrees to every one earned by a black student. Blacks are imprisoned nationally at five times the rate of whites; and Virginia, where 19 percent of the population is black, is among a dozen states where more than half of all inmates are black.

The homeownership rate for whites is 74 percent nationally compared with 44 percent for African-Americans. A Brookings Institute study of health care shows that half of the 30 million Americans without health care insurance are black though they account for only 13 percent of the U.S. population; black babies in their first year die at double the rate of white infants; and black women die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth at more than triple the rate of white women. American Public Media found that black COVID-19 patients have died at twice the rate of white patients.

Conspicuously, there is the persistent disparity in how police much more frequently police use force against black people than whites. From childhood, African-Americans learn to fear and distrust police, and recent years provide good reasons. Consider the fresh fatal police shootings of Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Tyre King, Marcus-David Peters – all unarmed. That doesn’t count Ahmaud Arbery who was shot dead while he was jogging through a white neighborhood in rural south Georgia by a recently retired officer.

According to a Washington Post database of police-involved shootings, officers have fatally shot 1,265 black people since the start of 2015. That amounts to 24 percent of all 5,365 fatal shootings by police over that period. Forty-five percent of those shot and killed by police were whites, who are 76.5 percent of the U.S. population.

These hard truths must be resolved through earnest, informed and empathetic conversations in the months and years ahead, and the young should lead them. Take it from a Charlottesville student activist who wrote the 2016 petition to remove a Lee statue in her hometown.

“I want to be clear that there will be no healing or reconciliation until we have equity, until we have fully dismantled the systems that oppress black and brown people, and the only way we move forward is if we hear the voices of the people who are most marginalized” said Zyahna Bryant.

“It is no longer adequate to walk away from having the tough conversation. It is no longer OK to walk away from racist dialogue because you don’t want to cause controversy. Lives are on the line. Our future is on the line,” she said.

Her truth is marching on.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]