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Honor the South, take down Confederate monuments

February 9, 2019

If we really want to honor Southern heritage today, more of us should heed the words of the most famous of all Confederate heroes, Robert E. Lee. In his great wisdom, he argued against Civil War monuments, saying that these “kept open the sores of war.”

My journey to greater understanding began many years ago in Louisiana when this now-old Yankee married a charming daughter of the Confederacy. She is a big part of the reason I fell in love with the South and remain enchanted with much of its culture.

Embracing my new life, I mounted a large Confederate battle flag in our living room. I thought it looked cool and was a lot cheaper than other art we couldn’t afford.

With respect to Southern credentials, my Cajun wife is a descendant of Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. For those of you not well-versed in Civil War history, Beauregard was not just a big part of the Civil War, he commanded the Rebel army that took the first shots at Fort Sumter.

Also of interest, and most indicative of the complexity of all humans, is that after the Civil War, Beauregard became a vocal proponent of voting rights for blacks and the abolition of segregation in public schools.

Irrespective of Beauregard’s evolution from slaveholder to civil rights activist — and in blind denial of his numerous military, political and social contributions to not just Louisiana but our entire country — the statue of him in New Orleans was removed a few years ago under the cover of night for fear of community conflict.

Still, many stood by to watch the statue come down at 3 a.m.

“It’s an unmitigated disaster — and for what?” an observer said as the statue was hauled away for storage in some dark warehouse.

“For what?” deserves an answer, one Lee understood but many who say they revere him still apparently do not.

Over the years, we made many friends who are black and brown-skinned. We would no sooner hurt or offend these friends and neighbors as we would our own family, and we can’t begin to count the many kindnesses and acts of compassion shown to us by people who aren’t Anglo.

One afternoon years ago, as I left the high school where I worked in San Antonio with a black colleague and friend, she looked over at a student wearing a cap with the Confederate battle flag patch. This is an icon Beauregard had much to do with making a symbol most of us instantly recognize today, but one that sparks many different reactions.

“Don’t you know how offensive I find that hat?” she said to the student, which prompted a look of confusion on the part of not only the student but me as well. Upon explanation, I got it, but I’m not so sure about the student.

What I “got” was that it’s long past the time we come to the realization that no matter how we sift and sort the facts, Confederate symbols and public reverence of leaders like Beauregard and much more popular historical figures such as Lee are deeply offensive to many good Americans.

Yes, Lee and many, many others who served at his side had an abundance of admirable qualities and made countless positive contributions, but they will always be inextricably linked to the great sin of slavery and, equally valid, deserve to be so identified.

The same goes for the Confederate battle flag.

But that’s not how I replied to my wife when she criticized the removal of Beauregard’s statue. I knew her kind and sensitive Southern heart as well as I knew with absolutely certainty she has not a single bone of racism in her body.

“We have to remember a lot of people we know and love are unfairly disturbed by these statues,” I reminded my wife, knowing that she’d see this instantly and understand. Mary has lived her life thinking about others’ feelings and needs before her own; it’s a big reason why I fell in love with her, so I knew just how to phrase my argument.

“Oh,” she answered. “You’re right. I hadn’t thought about that.”

I had an instant convert. This is not to say my wife should forget a most important part of her family tree and not honor her connection to it. Still, you won’t see us fly a Confederate flag today. We have too much respect and concern for others to do that.

As a former history teacher, I understand the importance of retaining and understanding past events and the people involved. I also respect paying tribute to people who lived honorable lives and died protecting this honor.

This is what history books and museums should do, and if my wife decided to put Beauregard’s photo on the mantle along with other family photos she’s collected, I think this would be appropriate.

Lee also thought it appropriate to keep and maintain the gravesites of fallen Confederate soldiers, and this seems only right for anyone who gave his life courageously, even if the cause we all know now was deeply wrong.

However, forcing a black kid to go to a school named after a proponent of slavery does no one honor and disrespects humanity. The same goes for Confederate displays in public places that we jointly own together.

Sure, there are times we have no choice but to take an unpopular stand against the opinions of others we care about because we believe it’s important and the right thing to do.

On this issue, however, the deep pain many share overrides any benefit gained by forcing symbols and names from the past on those who are disturbed by them for very good reasons. This sort of discretion and reserve is a hallmark of Southern civil and polite behavior, one of many things I learned much more about south of the Mason-Dixon Line than I did from my previous Yankee life.

There are many ways to honor heritage. One of the best is showing compassion and concern for those we might not agree with as an example of the higher ideals we claim to cherish.

I know from living in the South for almost 40 years and marrying my own very special part of it that there is so much to honor here.

We have almost countless ways to celebrate the South together that do not separate, and there are many other flags we can fly that show who we are and why we’re proud to remain here. Let’s use them instead of Confederate symbols, and remember when in public what common decency really means.

Don’t do this for me. Do it for Robert E. Lee.

Mike Brown writes a blog at oldhippierants.com and is a retired San Antonio Independent School District teacher.

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