Owning and disowning the past without forgetting what happened

Published 8:27 am Wednesday, September 6, 2017

‘The rest of the story’


Contributing columnist

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The massacre of nine worshippers at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by white supremacist Dylann Roof brought about a conversion of memory about the Confederate battle flag for many, including Governor Nikki Haley and College of Charleston president and former state senator Glenn McConnell, both of whom had previously opposed removing the flag from its prominent place on the state capitol grounds. It no longer flies over the capitol.

In the wake of that tragedy and transformation, cities and schools began to rethink their confederate monuments. Shows of force by defenders of white supremacy surfaced as monuments were moved in New Orleans, Baltimore and elsewhere. The recent events in Charlottesville have now turned up the heat in a spreading clash of social memories, further calling into question whether we are truly one nation.

For Kentuckians, the issue of Confederate monument removal or reinterpretation has come up in Louisville, Lexington and Frankfort. In Lexington, Mayor Gray is proposing the relocation of the statues of slavery defenders John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan from the front of the old courthouse, where a slave auction block once stood. In Frankfort, the statue of the Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis, which stands in a place of honor in the capitol rotunda, has been targeted for removal by 11 lawmakers, activists and professors, who signed a letter to Gov. Bevin urging him make that decision.

The governor had supported removal when he was running for office, but now questions it, pretending that “your history is not your history.” Several of the black leaders who signed the letter, as well as Danville native Dr. Betty Sue Griffin, also spoke at a rally for removal at the capitol this past Wednesday.  Several Danvillians representing such supporting organizations as the NAACP, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Kentucky Council of Churches were part of the crowd that filled the rotunda.  

In calling for the removal of the statue, these leaders told “the rest of the story.” Their biography contradicted the monument’s words lauding Davis, an unrepentant defender of slavery and white supremacy, as “Patriot, Hero, Statesman.” Instead he was called a traitor who refused to take an oath of allegiance after the war.

The brief existence of the Confederate States of America and its presidency under Davis is not to be denied, but it can be acknowledged without being celebrated. The Lost Cause that still has many mourners has been dignified with noble language, but in the final analysis, that cause was slavery. And in his final analysis, President Lincoln stated, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”  

Do you remember the caption on some license plates under the angry Confederate soldier draped in the battle flag? It was “Forget, hell!” The Civil War and the Jim Crow past do need to be remembered, but in contrition rather than defiance. The proliferation of Confederate symbols and monuments from 1867 to 1877 after Reconstruction and in the 1950s and 60s in reaction against the Civil Rights Movement and desegregation was partly grief-driven, but it was also defiance driven.

In his 2009 Grawemeyer Award winner, “Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds,” distinguished Christian theologian and ethicist Donald Shriver cites the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement and oppression of African-Americans as our nation’s original sins, which have not been remembered nearly well enough. He also catalogues the actions of Germany and South Africa in the painful preservation of the memories of the atrocities and dehumanizations perpetrated by Hitler’s Third Reich and the South African government under apartheid. History books were rewritten, markers were placed and monuments were erected to ensure that the deplored evils would not be repeated, because they would not be forgotten.

To say that slavery has not been adequately remembered by our textbooks and public memorials is an understatement to say the least. A notable correction to that neglect is occurring through the efforts of a retired New Orleans lawyer and real estate magnet named John Cummings, who has stepped up to tell the rest of the story. He bought the Whitney Plantation near Wallace, Louisiana; spent 8.6 million dollars of his own money; did the research with expert help; and made the plantation into a slavery museum — a revelation of what slavery was really like on the land where 350 slaves farmed indigo and later sugar.

The names of those slaves are now engraved on a Wall of Honor.  Other memorials there list the names of the 107,000 slaves who toiled in Louisiana. According to Cummings, “We have not acknowledged our great sin of slavery as a nation. We must own it.”  Its “unspeakable horrors” must be remembered.

Another powerful teller of “the rest of the story” is Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, law professor, author of the widely acclaimed “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” about the criminal justice system’s racism, and winner of multiple prestigious awards. Among other accomplishment, he was been able to spare 125 from execution.

Called “America’s Mandela” by Nicholas Kristof, he is constructing a Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, on the site of a former slave warehouse. It will commemorate 4,000 lynching victims from 12 states. Named “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration” and scheduled to open in 2018, it is the first lynching memorial. Stevenson has said, “We don’t talk about lynching and segregation.” Now “the rest of the story” is getting told lest we forget.

Between 1865 and 1940, there were at least 353 lynchings in Kentucky, with more than 60 of those occurring between 1900 and 1940. The vast majority of the victims were African-American men murdered by white vigilantes and mobs. Where is that memory being preserved in our commonwealth, lest we forget? There was one lynching in Danville. How should it be remembered?

The soul searching is spreading concerning our nation’s past slavery, white supremacy, and racial injustice; and the resistance to that re-remembering of “the rest of the story” is apparently mounting. As Kentuckians and Danvillians, we should be talking about how the rest of the story gets owned and/or disowned.

How do we present our local history to a new generation and to visitors? On occasion, slaves were bought and sold on our courthouse steps. Is that worth remembering?

One-time presidential candidate James G. Birney returned to Danville in 1935 and attempted to start an abolitionist newspaper. Because of the threats of violence by the local residents, he had to flee to Cincinnati to start his newspaper. Is that remembered, so as to renew our resolve to protect freedom of the press?

We have our Confederate soldier monument in McDowell Park dedicated to the memory of the Confederate dead. Does the history of the monument need interpretation or “contextualization,” or should relocation be considered?

Are we making the most of the emphasis on the Underground Railroad as developed in the Great American Dollhouse Museum?

The current ferment about our racial history and about Confederate symbols and memorials has deprived us of the luxury of living in denial about our history. What has not been remembered honestly cannot be put behind us in order to become a more unified nation.  Sometimes, when we say someone is “telling a story,” we mean that someone is lying. Let’s be those honest patriots that tell the whole story.