Contextualizing the Past

Posted on August 20, 2019


One of my wife’s cousins, Sheffield Hale, is dealing with one of the most delicate issues in modern society over in Atlanta these days. He’s the director of the Atlanta History Center and so is at the epicenter of what to do with the remnants of our Civil War tucked into our history.

In the simplest terms, what do we do to monuments created over the past century to Southerners who fought in the Civil War and governed in much of the South after the war? They fought the war to keep the South from being overwhelmed by Northern interests, especially, but not exclusively, those driven by the growing abolitionist movement to eradicate slavery. And after the war, and defeat, Southerners who had both political and economic power created a Segregationist system to preserve power and privilege among whites. These were the infamous Jim Crow laws to keep blacks from access to true freedom and liberty in many areas, some political, some economic, some social, across the spectrum of life.

Today many want to tear down and eradicate the physical remains of this era in American life, largely statues and other public displays of everyone from Robert E. Lee to, in our state, John Tyler Morgan and other Southerners who were essentially white supremacists.

Sheffield and other Atlantans are negotiating a delicate walk between those who want to destroy anything that remembers or edifies the Civil War or its aftermath—segregation and white supremacy—and those who refuse to deny our history by simple acts of desecration or destruction: tear down the statue and we’ll no longer have the images and artifacts to remind us of the past.

The problem is you cannot erase your past. It’s like erasing a memory or part of your mind. It is part of you. What if the Germans decided to simply suppress the entire span of the World Wars (One and Two) and the genocide of six million Jews in the Nazi drive to purify the Aryan race? Would that change what truly happened? We need to remember the same way we need our memory to inform us of everything we have been, or are, and, equally important, where we want to be.

Sheffield and Atlantans have chosen to keep their physical history but provide explanations, the contextualizations, which explain the era and the artifact, which could be a statue, a painting, or something else like a Supreme Court decision. As Sheffield noted, it we don’t know how badly we behaved in the past, we’ll truly never realize fully how far we have come. And that is an essential part of the contextualization movement.

Put up an historical marker next to the statue of let’s say Robert E. Lee, and explain who he was, what he did, and why. It is not a simple job. Historians have written volumes of books on the subjects, and to reduce it to a few lines that people will be likely to read is tough.

In the Supreme Court case Plessey vs. Ferguson in 1892 the court ruled that the principle of separate but equal was correct and admissible as a way of preserving segregation, by giving blacks “equal” access to education, etc. It never worked out the way the Supreme Court envisioned. I don’t know if there is a statue to this case, but in 1954 that decision was reversed in Brown vs. the Board of Education which basically said that segregation was wrong, unconstitutional, and needed to be ended.

Why did the Supreme Court vote one way in 1892, and then reversed itself dramatically a little over half a century later? It needs contextualization.

Can remembering the Ku Klux Klan, or the history of lynchings, edify us? No, of course not. But we are made of what we did. Think of your own lives. As Jesus told a lynch mob of his day, about to stone to death a woman caught in adultery (and today we would of course ask, what about the “John?”), he who is without sin cast the first stone. No one wished to be a hypocrite and all the stoners dropped their rocks and slipped way. Read the entire passage to understand the full meaning. My point was easily, and dramatically, made by Jesus. We are all sinners, and if you think you are not, you’re a liar to boot, and we need to recognize much of what we did in the past that did not gratify or emulate Jesus.

On race relations, segregation, Jim Crow laws and the lot, we finally—especially after the Second World War—stepped into a new era of truth and true freedom and, at the very least, embraced fully the ideal of true and universal equality in the 1950s and 1960s.

How far we have come in the century since the Civil War. That understanding is what Sheffield and the Atlantans are striving for. Good for them.

Published as “The past requires context, not erasure,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Aug. 18 2919