The country has been forced to confront difficult issues after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police, the protests in response and the outrageous, yet unsurprising, reaction from President Trump.
Is there a way to prevent or at least minimize the impact of systemic racism in our police departments and criminal justice system? Can we figure out a way to involve communities more in activities that have traditionally been handled by the police? How do we create a society that is fair to all of our citizens?
These complex problems will take time to address, but there is something else the country can do immediately. We need to get rid of symbols that glorify the Confederate rebellion and perpetrate it now. Doing so is decades if not centuries overdo.
The argument for getting rid of these symbols is clear, and the justifications for maintaining them weak. Let’s examine these justifications. The Confederate rebellion lost. That rebellion was fought in part to maintain slavery, the greatest evil ever perpetrated on this continent. Yes there were other causes for the Civil War as there are multiple causes for most wars, but that does not change the fact that had the South won, slavery would have continued to exist. It is impossible to say whether that would have been for years, decades or even generations. But certainly there would there have been more African Americans enslaved, more beatings, more forced separation of families, more deaths. The Germans may have had a reasonable complaint that the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I treated them unfairly, but should we use that to minimize the fact that war was fought to further the grotesque Nazi agenda?
Next is the argument that we should not forget or lose sight of history. Does a week go by when we are not reminded of the late philosopher George Santayana’s statement about being condemned to repeat history if we forget it? That is absolutely true, but no one is suggesting we forget the Civil War or what led up to it. Libraries should display books on the war, every relevant museum should have exhibits that enlighten future generations about it and every American child should study it in school. What we should not do, however, is honor or glorify those who fought for a cause that would have maintained slavery.
The military is now considering renaming bases named in honor of Confederate generals. Retired U.S. Army general and former CIA director David Petraeus recently wrote about one fort named after a general who wanted the formation of a Southern slavocracy and another named for a general who was likely a Ku Klux Klan leader after the war. President Trump said on Wednesday that he would not rename the bases because “the United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars.” I’m guessing those same soldiers would have been trained the same way and fought just as heroically even if where they were trained was not named for those who fought to keep others in chains.
The removal of the statues honoring Confederate generals in Baltimore and renaming the Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington, Virginia, are examples of eliminating symbols honoring those who should not be honored. Congratulations to NASCAR for taking what had to be a courageous step by recently banning Confederate flags at their racetracks. Unfortunately many such symbols, statues and other indications of respect for the Lost Cause still proliferate, especially in the South.
The final argument for maintaining Confederate symbols comes from those who wish merely to honor their ancestors. Those who offer this argument should be viewed differently from those who erected such symbols decades after the war to stand in opposition to integration and other forms of equal rights for blacks. If your great-great-grandfather was a poor dirt farmer who never owned a slave and fought for the Confederacy because he believed in the sanctity of states’ rights or just wanted to support his neighbors, fine. But understanding why he did so does not justify a public monument to those who fought a war for defending the indefensible, even if they had done nothing wrong themselves.
I hope those of you who wish to maintain such symbols at some point ask yourselves what it means to an African American person to see a flag or statue honoring those who enslaved his ancestors. Then ask yourself if the monument or flag is worth it.
Steven P. Grossman (email@example.com) is the Dean Julius Isaacson Professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.