In the wake of White Nationalists marching in Charlottesville, I saw a few variants of this question: “If these Confederate statues are so terrible, why didn’t Martin Luther King ever talk about them? Why are they only an issue now that Donald Trump is President?”
I can’t pretend to speak for the great Reverend King, but here’s my personal perspective.
First of all, the push to remove Confederate flags and statues from the public eye is hardly new. For instance, in 1993, there was a drive to remove a statue of Albert Pike from downtown Washington, D.C. The statue was ostensibly meant to honor Pike’s contributions as a Mason, but people objected to Pike’s military service in the Confederate Army.
In 2001, George Schedler of Southern Illinois University examined the issue of whether Confederate monuments were racist as a group and ought to be removed; he concludes that it would be better to leave the statues but provide interpretive material to avoid false conclusions. Regardless of his conclusion, though, the point remains that the disposition of these monuments has been on the minds of at least some people for decades.
More recently, in 2015, there was controversy over whether South Carolina (and by extension other states) should continue to fly the Confederate battle flag ) At the time, Bree Newsome was arrested for taking matters into her own hands.
Even in Charlottesville, the push to remove the statues was in motion early last year, well before the Presidential election. The previous summer (2015), Lee’s memorial had been vandalized by Black Lives Matter protesters. Interest in the removal of the statues may not have been a major focal point of the Civil Rights Movement during the era of King and Malcolm X, but it didn’t start with Trump’s election, either.
If the push to remove them isn’t new, why has the outrage become so visible so quickly?
I’m sure the White Nationalist argument would be that they’ve finally had enough: Charlottesville was the last straw. I’m not going to look for links to support that because I don’t want to pollute my browsing history, but that seems the sort of rationale they’d use.
Meanwhile, in my own echo chamber, the position has been that the White Nationalists have come out of the woodwork because they feel emboldened by Donald Trump’s ascendency and continued equivocation. In response to Charlottesville, Trump dragged his heels in responding, and then suggested that the counterprotesters on the left were also bad.
I’ve seen multiple sources taking up the claim that “Antifa” violence is a problem, too. This has emerged as 2017’s version of “All Lives Matter”: “Antifa is bad, too.” While the left’s support for the Punch a Nazi meme creates an ethical dilemma, equating people who want to deliver punches in defense of the oppressed to people who want to run protesters over with cars is inane on its face.
The issue is not whether Antifa violence is bad “too,” the issue is whether the President is tacitly supporting White Nationalists (an interpretation strengthened by his pardon of Joe Arpaio), and the extent to which that has emboldened the racists to come forward, as in Charlottesville.
That’s my response to why the issue has become so visible in 2017, even though it’s been an issue for at least twenty years.
Why wasn’t it a major talking point during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, though?
Again, I’m not pretending to speak for King and Malcolm X. What follows is my supposition.
When you clean up a very messy house, so messy you can barely walk through it, do you start in one corner and systematically clean until you get to the other corner, or do you start with the obvious stuff like clearing a walkway and making sure there are no major fire hazards, and then start working on the details when that’s mostly taken care of?
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-60s had these issues, among many others:
- Interracial marriage
- Segregated schooling
- Employment disparities
- Disparate incarceration rates
- Some Civil War flags and statues
The Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination “concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin and sex.” Prior to 1968, it was legal to deny a black person housing based on their skin color. Because of the history of red-lining in this country, many communities remain highly segregated, allowing for de facto racial profiling by ZIP code.
The 1967 Supreme Court decision of Loving v. Virginia banned laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Prior to 1967, many states refused to allow such marriages. Of the issues listed above, this is the only one that doesn’t remain as a major legal issue, although depictions of mixed race marriages still provoke outrage.
It took so long for states to respect the 1954 SCOTUS decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that when the Federal Government decided to send the National Guard to Louisiana to enforce it, they escorted a first-grade girl who was born after the decision. And the current national trend towards charter schools, championed by now-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, seems to be increasing segregation again.
Likewise, gaps in employment rates, wages, and incarceration have continued since the 1960s, and in some cases have gotten worse.
We have a very messy house, and we’ve been doing a mediocre job of cleaning it.
Compared to these issues, Confederate flags and monuments may seem like a trivial issue. But they’re symbolic. General Robert E. Lee, himself, didn’t want them; he argued against them. Most of them were put up during the Jim Crow era, as a reminder of the place of white people at the top of the cultural food chain, just as the film “Birth of a Nation” was only superficially about the Civil War.
If we are truly the post-racial nation that Obama’s Presidency was claimed to herald, then it should have been a no-brainer to remove these archaic, ostensibly meaningless markers of a time-gone-by. We should have come together as a nation and summarily stricken them from public view. After all, Germany had little problem banning Nazi symbols following World War II.
It’s not just a handful of White Nationalists resisting the change, though. The torch-bearers represent a visible tip to an Optic White iceberg, and serve as a reminder that we’re not at all post-racial.
The statues are not an issue in 2017 because we finally got around to thinking about them. The statues are an issue in 2017 because the people who don’t want them gone have found a new voice.
We cannot let our house get messier again.
Originally published on The Good Men Project.