It is time to either remove Confederate statues from public grounds or to change the plaques that purport their reason for being there.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on Wednesday:
“When it comes to the debate about our historical monuments, we cannot change history, but we must learn from it. We should not start taking down monuments just because they remind us of an unpleasant past. Refusing to face our history by dismantling it is a mistake. We should use our historical markers as teaching opportunities to provide greater leadership for the future.”
This is true and those can be wise words. The concentration camps in Dachau and Auschwitz, which have been preserved, are a reminder of the horrific, unconscionable extermination of the Jews during the reign of Nazi Germany. Closer to home, the internment camps at Rowher in southeast Arkansas are a shameful monument of our persecution and vilification of Japanese Americans during WWII.
And the Confederate statues that grace the grounds of our State Capitol or the Bentonville town square and other public places in the South are reminders of a shameful past too; however, they are different.
These statues “glorify” the time in American history when states like Arkansas – led by people who shaped our state and nation often in many good ways – also broke from the Union (the United States) in a doomed effort to protect their right to preserve slavery – the right to keep black people brought to America unwillingly and in chains from Africa. They fought to protect their right to keep black people as their property.
Many of these statues were erected decades after the Civil War in reaction to court rulings involving civil rights. Some in the 20th century during the Jim Crow era in an effort to intimidate.
So how do we let a monument that reveres this notion of oppression teach us about history? How do we, in the words of the governor, use this historical marker as a teaching opportunity “to provide greater leadership for the future”?
On the side of the Confederate soldiers statue on the northeast corner of the state capitol campus, these words are engraved: “Arkansas remembers the faithfulness of her sons and commends their example to future generations.”
How does that phrase teach the youth of today (or the elders of today) to avoid the mistake of believing that one race, the white race, is superior to another, the black race? That plaque says we commend, we compliment, the example of the Confederate sons to future generations.
At Auschwitz, there is a plaque at the entrance to the concentration camp that reads:
“Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe.”
If we are going to leave our Confederate statues in place, they should come with a similar interpretation. Not that this statue glorifies a time in our nation when white people enslaved black people for labor and fought to preserve that way of life, but that as a nation and as a people, we realized that was wrong. “Forever let this statue be a warning to humanity to not let it happen again.” That’s what our Confederate statues should say.
Not that we commend their example, but that we condemn their example.
Gov. Hutchinson also said in making his statement regarding Confederate statues that “Every generation must affirm and live American values anew.” I agree. This would be a good time, if we leave these statues in place, to change those inscriptions to reflect our current affirmation of American values which is that our society, in this year 2017, cherishes its diversity, believes in a society in which all men and women are entitled to equality, to equal treatment and respect, that no one race or one class of people are superior to another, and we will not make the mistake of our ancestors again.
I hope that our leaders in Arkansas will recognize how these Confederate statues are a painful reminder of a shameful time in our state and national history. If we’re going to keep them, let’s make sure they’re teaching the right lessons that we want to convey. Because today, they do not.
Editor’s note: Roby Brock is the CEO of Natural State Media, the parent company of Talk Business & Politics and the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.