Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas, opened in 1958, and my older sister was in its graduating class of 1961—the first class that had spent all three years of high school as the Lee Rebels, with Dixie as the fight song, and the second largest Confederate flag in the world being held aloft for the football team to run under when entering the stadium.
By the time I started high school, things had changed. Judge William Wayne Justice of the U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas had ordered the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to desegregate all its schools, a mammoth directive covering a thousand school districts and 2,000,000 students. With Judge Justice having jurisdiction over the TEA, that agency ordered the Tyler school board to get rid of the southern symbols or face losing accreditation and state funding. Goodbye Rebels, hello Red Raiders.
That transition was not easy, but here we are—a generation later, in the second decade of the 21st century, and we’re just now getting around to addressing the potent symbolism of monuments to the Confederacy and some of its leaders. And, we saw what happened in Charlottesville last weekend, where the Confederate flag mixed with swastikas inside a discordant chorus of anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic chanting that created an atmosphere that went from toxic to deadly.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the President managed to take all of that and make it about him. His comments have outraged many Americans, while serving to embolden the very elements he should have been denouncing. If virtually any other elected official in America had said what he did, there would be calls for his resignation from office.
It’s long past the time that Americans, particularly ones like me who are white Southerners, should have shown enough intellectual honesty to be able to deconstruct the mythology of Gone with the Wind. It’s long past the time we should have been able to face our history, particularly the odious parts of it, without relying on our “heritage” to make it more palatable. We can take complete pride in the reality of Southern hospitality, sweet tea and magnolia blossoms, but reject the “Lost Cause” narrative as a false reconstruction (pardon the pun) that seeks to deny the primary role of slavery in the American Civil War.
In the 1968 presidential election, nearly 10,000,000 Americans voted for George Wallace of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” fame. One has to wonder how many of those voters who would still be alive would be proud to admit it. (Probably more than I’d like to think.) And one has to wonder if the children and grandchildren of those voters would be proud to admit that Mamaw and Papaw had voted that way.
I don’t know how long this current moment will last. Americans these days move from one thing to the next, with an attention span whose durability seems to match that of the President.
And whether the current outrage dissipates or escalates by this time next week, there has always been a right side and a wrong side of history. There was in 1861, and Robert E. Lee was on the wrong side. And there are times when we must speak out because silence is complicity. And thanks to social media, everyone has a platform.
So, I’m picking history over heritage. Symbolism and monuments associated in any way with the defense of slavery, superiority based on race, anti-Semitism or homophobia have no place in a society that continues to aspire to liberty and justice for all. (Outside of museums, that is, where those symbols can be placed in context.) Disaffected individuals who would use violence or any illegal action to promote their ideology must be called out and held responsible for their actions.
And as for the President? He tweeted Thursday morning his opposition to the removal of the monuments, adding that “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” And he’s right on that one point, as long as you don’t include him as someone who is capable of learning from history. And thanks to him, we are in the middle of one hell of a teaching moment.
Something’s got to give, and I’m not just whistling Dixie.