A Memorial for the Confederacy
[dc]I[/dc] hail from a long line of clergy; it skipped a few generations at times, but we seemed to keep coming back to the family trade. I am directly descended from Rev. John Rogers, the side of the family from which I received my first name. John’s career as an English clergyman came to a sudden end one day in 1555 when Mary Queen of Scots had him burned alive at the stake. An event which evidently put the desire to go to seminary on ice in my family for a few generations. But always the rebels, it was Edmund Rogers who found, after the fall of Cromwell, that it was time to give up the island nation which had been our home, to come to America.
Edmund Rogers distinguished himself in service during the Revolutionary War and later settled to farm in southern Kentucky, founding the small town that bears his name, Edmonton, KY.
For more than two centuries my patriarchal family managed a large farm there, and for most of the first half of it, it was a prosperous slave plantation. I grew up near the family farm hearing stories about the good ol days before the Civil War had plunged my family into poverty. A hundred years after the war, they were still repeating stories that included lots of apologetics for the 19th century version of my ancestor’s lives.
My great grandmother, Nina Biggs, told me that she had been cared for as a child by a former slave who had not left family service because the slaves were well provided for and they were happy being slaves. I helped to mow the family cemetery where slaves were buried in a corner of the family graveyard.
I went to school with black kids who had my family name and we assumed that they were descendants of the freed slaves from the family plantation. What I did not allow myself to consider until many years later, is that they were probably also my cousins.
In high school, my history teachers told us that the Civil War was not really about slavery. The real issue, we were told, is that the south had produced the raw materials for the industrialized northern states but when southern states started to industrialize, to process and weave their own cotton and wool, that it economically threatened the north and so the Yankees attacked us. I was told, in history class, by my teachers, that slavery was used as a cover for a war of what they called, “Northern aggression.”
A monument to “Our Confederate Dead” still stands on the courthouse lawn in my hometown. An essay I published in the Glasgow Daily Times a few years ago, urging my hometown peers to move it to a nearby graveyard so that it would not appear to be a reflection of our city government was met with dozens of death threats and a very demanding letter from my brother, who still lives there, to never write for the Glasgow Daily Times again.
The myth is that such memorials represent southern heritage. The claim is made that it is not about racism. These statues and memorials represent our pride in our ancestors, and they honor their memory. It is all a part of the fabric of the myth that the descendants of slave owners wove for themselves. That myth normalized the southern culture of which slavery was a part in much the same way that turning corn into bourbon and eating grits with your eggs was just a part of the culture.
Of course, then along comes a history teacher like our own Dr. David Adams who read our wisdom lesson today, directly reading from the Mississippi State legislature’s 1861 declaration of secession from the union which very plainly gives the lie to the myth about the causes of the Civil War, stating plainly, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world.”
Arguing imperiously that the products of the agricultural south were crucial to the world but explaining, “none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.” Saying, in effect, you know, we don’t want to be slave owners but you can’t seriously expect white people to work in the hot sun!
The historical fact is that the Civil War was about slavery. It is also a historical fact that almost all of these statues were not put up at the end of the war to honor those who had been traitors to the United States, but they were erected during the Jim Crow era, along with the rise of the KKK. More were added during the Civil Rights Movement, always as an assertion by the white majority that equal rights would never be given to black people.
But it became a part of the background of southern life. White people had the luxury of displaying Dixie flags and talking endearingly about the south as if the myths were true and there was no harm done in our history of slavery. Even as recently as 1989, the generally liberal singing trio, now named the “Chicks” were known as the “Dixie Chicks” for nearly 30 years. I’m not sure that their new name would pass muster with many feminists these days but even with that moniker’s problems, they sure didn’t want to continue to use “Dixie” in their name.
I am sure that many of the people we know would write off all of this movement to ban Confederate flags, tear down Confederate monuments, and even to scrub our language of references to the Confederacy that help to hide the horrors of our early history in slavery as a matter of political correctness, of liberals trying to change history, or even of a kind of cancel culture. But the truth is that symbols, statues, flags, names of Universities and military bases do make a difference.
If you cannot immediately see the connection between the culture of accepting Confederate flags and monuments in our midst and the fact that a white cop can shoot an unarmed black man in the back seven times then I hope you will understand it before you leave here today.
There is a reason why the police drove right past 17-year old, Kyle Rittenhouse, even though he was out after curfew, was carrying an illegal weapon, and had just shot and killed two people and literally nodded at him, even as people in the streets were loudly identifying him as the shooter, but the police will shoot unarmed black men in the back, even when they pose no threat. If you still don’t see the connection to the fixtures of institutional racism to the way that black people are treated by employers, in the courts, and in law enforcement, then let me fix your glasses.
Why is there so much resistance to things like changing the name of the Edmund Pettus bridge to the John Lewis bridge? I mean, other than Dr. Adams, does anyone here even know who Edmund Pettus was, beyond the vague fact that he was a part of the Confederacy? Lots of people fought in the Civil War. Pettus got a bridge named after him because he was one of the first Grand Dragons of the KKK. That’s a part of Alabama history, for sure, but not especially a good part . . . not something that should get your name on a public works project.
There are things that are undeniably a part of history that don’t deserve a public monument. Mary Queen of Scots played a very distinct role in my family history but even 500 years after she had Rev. John Rogers burned alive, I don’t need a portrait of her in my living room to remind me of what this Catholic anti-Reformationist did. Do you know, she was only 13 years old when she ordered Rev. Rogers taken from prison and burned alive . . . who gives that kind of power to a hormonal teenager? You don’t have to be mad for me, but you can see why I’m kinda mad that after 500 years of not having a statue of Mary in Scotland, someone put one up recently. That’s on my list of monuments to deface. But I digress . . .
Back to the topic at hand, I think that the final word in the argument about taking these Confederate statues down was published in the New York Times on June 26th. It is in a piece written by the Vanderbilt professor, Caroline Randall Williams. I don’t normally read this long of a passage from someone else’s pen but please indulge me to read a few paragraphs from her essay:
I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.
If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.
Dead Confederates are honored all over this country — with cartoonish private statues, solemn public monuments and even in the names of United States Army bases. It fortifies and heartens me to witness the protests against this practice and the growing clamor from serious, nonpartisan public servantsto redress it. But there are still those — like President Trumpand the Senate majority leader,Mitch McConnell— who cannot understand the difference between rewriting and reframing the past. I say it is not a matter of “airbrushing” history, but of adding a new perspective.
I am a black, Southern woman, and of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists. My very existence is a relic of slavery and Jim Crow . . . I am the descendant of black women who were domestic servants and white men who raped their help.
I am more than half white, and none of it was consensual. White Southern men — my ancestors — took what they wanted from women they did not love, over whom they had extraordinary power, and then failed to claim their children.
What is a monument but a standing memory? An artifact to make tangible the truth of the past. My body and blood are a tangible truth of the South and its past. The black people I come from were owned by the white people I come from. The white people I come from fought and died for their Lost Cause. And I ask you now, who dares to tell me to celebrate them? Who dares to ask me to accept their mounted pedestals?
You cannot dismiss me as someone who doesn’t understand. You cannot say it wasn’t my family members who fought and died. My blackness does not put me on the other side of anything. It puts me squarely at the heart of the debate. I don’t just come from the South. I come from Confederates. I’ve got rebel-gray blue blood coursing my veins. My great-grandfather Will was raised with the knowledge that Edmund Pettus was his father. Pettus, the storied Confederate general, the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, the man for whom Selma’s Bloody Sunday Bridge is named. So I am not an outsider who makes these demands. I am a great-great-granddaughter.
So far as I am concerned, Professor Williams has said the last thing that needs to be said on this topic. There is no defense, no excuse, for the public display of Confederate monuments. The Confederates were traitors who sought to defend the institution of slavery in a country that had the temerity to speak of freedom and liberty.
As a white man in America, while my family has boasted many scholars, scientists, and pastors, I cannot dare speak of that fact without also apologizing for the undeniable fact that my blood lines also contain slave owners, slave traders, and very probably slave rapists and while there is no way to go back in time and undo those tragic, unjust, criminal and immoral events, there is no way that any self-respecting white person in the country should not be the first in line to hold the rope that pulls down the Confederate monuments.
Their history of human chattel slavery, physical abuse and undeniable rape is a part of our history, but it is a part for which we must apologize and seek to amend.
It is interesting, isn’t it, that when we object to police shooting unarmed black men in the back that people think that we are being critical of the police in general. Is shooting unarmed black men so much a part of policing that people seriously can’t separate the two? I mean, what would policing be if you took away the part about shooting unarmed black men in the back? The fact that people cannot seem to imagine objecting to police over use of lethal force without objecting to police entirely is why we have to make some deep cultural changes. It means that we change the way we talk. . . when someone says “black lives matter,” don’t ever reply with some inane, “blue lives matter” or worse yet, “all lives matter.” If someone tells you that their mother just died, do you correct them and say “All mothers die?” We announce that black lives matter because that has not been clear through the past 400 years of American history.
And we pull down Confederate monuments because while the Confederacy is a part of our heritage, it is a part of our history in the same way that Nazis and the holocaust are a part of German history and while there may be some right wing German groups that would love to put up statues of history, the German people know to keep telling those racist nuts to sit down and shut up.
So, in that spirit, all that is left to say to those among us who still want to defend Confederate flags, monuments, and names, let me say this in the nicest way that I know how:
And if telling you to sit down and shut up doesn’t sound all that nice, let me invite you to imagine what I might have said if we were not in church. This case, men and women, is closed.
Rev. Roger L. Ray