On Tuesday, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed legislation stating that his state would no longer commemorate Confederate general Robert E. Lee on the federal Martin Luther King holiday. It is a nice gesture, as far as it goes. Now only Alabama and Mississippi maintain this callous disrespect for the Reverend King by linking the commemoration of his career with that of a Confederate leader who fought against all that he stood for.
The Arkansas bill had wide support. The signing ceremony included the expressions of all sorts of good feelings. Lawmakers patted themselves on the back for their courageous decision to separate the state’s commemoration of two men, one who fought for civil rights, and the other a civil war. But not everybody was happy. Republican State Representative Jana Della Rosa saw the separation as a demotion for Lee. “We are taking Robert E. Lee and and are putting him in the basement and we are acting embarrassed that he ever existed,” she said during the debate.
No, Jana Della Rosa, you are not. Robert E. Lee still has his own day, which will now be celebrated on the second Saturday in October. But Representative Della Rosa could not be placated. Speaking of the vote, she said, “it’s no different than if we took that statue of the Confederate soldier and put it down in the basement and said nobody is going to look at it again.”
I am not sure what it is with Representative Della Rosa and basements. Governor Hutchinson acknowledged the concerns of lawmakers like her when he stated at the signing ceremony that Arkansans should not be ashamed of their Confederate history.
But here is the thing. The South, and southerners in general, should be ashamed.
Some of my students still are taught in high school that the Civil War was fought over States’ Rights. Nonsense. Slavery and White Supremacy. These were causes Southerners thought worth dying for. These were causes for which they were killing to kill. More than 600,000 people died as a result of the South’s determination to protect slavery.
As Charles R. Dew demonstrated in his fantastic book Apostles of Disunion, Southerners who advocated secession from the Union associated the presidency of Abraham Lincoln with three stark images that, Dew writes, “constituted the white South’s worst nightmare.”
The first, Dew writes, “was the looming specter of racial equality.” Second, was the fear of race war. The Republican party of Lincoln, wrote one secession commissioner from Mississippi, will not only destroy slavery but “will drench the country in blood, and extirpate one or other of the races.” And, third, the southern secessionists most dire fear, that of racial amalgamation. Dew’s work is worth quoting at length:
Judge Harris of Mississippi sounded this note in Georgia in December 1860 when he spoke of Republican insistence on “equality in the rights of matrimony.” Other commissioners repeated this warning in the weeks that followed. In Virginia, Henry Benning insisted that under Republican-led abolition, “our women” would suffer “horrors…we cannot contemplate in imagination.” There was not an adult present who could not imagine exactly what Benning was talking about. Leroy Pope Walker, Alabama’s commissioner to Tennessee and subsequently the first Confederate secretary of war, predicted that in the absence of secession, all would be lost–first, “our property,” and “then our liberties,” and finally the South’s greatest treasure, “the sacred purity of our daughters.”
Southern secessionists, Dew concluded, believed these things in the marrow of their bones.
Governor Hutchinson did the right thing in disconnecting the commemorations of Reverend King and General Lee. But in keeping a day on the state’s calendar for honoring Lee, and asserting in his comments that Southerners should be proud of their Confederate heritage, he went too far.
We are too late in history for this sort of stuff. The Confederacy stood for white supremacy. That hundreds of thousands of men died in the struggle to preserve the Union and abolish slavery is sad. In an American nation where Southern states are moving to restrict access to the polls, and “Alt-Right”-inspired political leaders consistently blow racist dog whistles, we must study closely the causes and consequences of the Civil War and Reconstruction, as well as the history of race and racism in American society. But, please, no more celebration of the Confederacy. Take down the flags. Put General Lee in the basement.