I recently watched the movie Hidden Figures, the important factual film about three Black female mathematicians and their inestimable, but generally unknown, contributions to NASA’s space program. It was alternately annoying and aggravating to see the depictions of the macro and micro incidents of racism these highly educated, extremely talented women endured in their efforts to be taken seriously as a part of the team that would send the first man into space and eventually land a man on the moon.
Similarly forgotten in our present-day Confederate statue controversy are the real heroes of the Civil War – Africans and their descendants, held as slaves and discriminated against for 400 years.
It is interesting that complaints regarding this controversy, complaints that suggest that efforts to get our city council to adopt a policy explicitly stating that these monuments will no longer be maintained by citizen tax dollars, nor have a place on public grounds, do nothing to advance the cause of human rights and do nothing to eradicate “institutional racism” or the causes of poverty, are themselves evidence that we do not understand the depth and breadth of racism in our country. The idea that these efforts seek to “erase history” evince a misreading of the seminal conflict of American history.
We are not trying to erase history; we are trying to redeem history.
There is nothing “historic” about statues that seek to convey the “valor,” “courage” or courageous character of those who committed a treasonous act such as secession. They were not erected during the era of the Civil War or its aftermath. They were erected, in the case of the Robert E. Lee statues and others, at least 100 years after the Civil War, in order to recast the conflict as a “lost cause” and those who lost as heroes. The intention was to highlight the cause of White supremacy and to rebrand the image of the South, recasting the image of Lee, for example, as a great Christian gentleman. These totems don’t depict history; they distort history.
The Confederacy was formed for one reason: to defend the right of people to own other people as literal property. Nothing less. The “way of life” that the Confederates were “defending,” the “economics” that they were “defending” all were rooted in the right to own people and do what they wanted with what was they considered to be theirs. Defenders of these icons refer this peculiar institution as a mistake, as if slave owners stepped on someone’s toes.
No, this was a period of abject cruelty during which Africans and their descendants were worked from cold morning to cruel night. A period during which they were beaten, raped, dehumanized and murdered. And even after the war was lost, there was instituted a period of nearly 100 years during which the violence and oppression continued. Oppression and dehumanization that included macro and micro racial aggressions, from Jim Crow and separate water fountains, incidents depicted in Hidden Figures, to lynching, to the horrendous murders of Emmitt Till to Trayvon Martin.
The real heroes of the era are the Africans and their descendants, immorally and illegally, from a human rights perspective, held as slaves. They suffered not only the degradations of slavery, but survived to produce a race of business leaders, clergy, scientists, educators, policy makers, influencers and politicians.
No one effort has eliminated the humiliating and heinous acts against our people: not the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or all of its subsequent permutations, or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and all of its subsequent amendments; no protest, no demonstration, no march – not even the election of the first Black President eliminated all discrimination or racism. That doesn’t mean we stop seeking, even demanding, progress. We must challenge the existence of every vestige of hatred, discrimination and racism – even those that appear to be “symbolic,” until we can hand to our children and our children’s children a world in which they can be proud to live.
Rev. Gerald Britt Jr., is vice president of External Affairs for CitySquare. He is the author of Civic Sermons: Ideas for a Different Civic Culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.