Monuments to the Future

The Rev. Susan Milnor
October 1, 2017

Like so many of you here in New England, I love and cherish history and the reminders of history. Indeed, the two parts of this country where history is the most visible and fiercely held are New England and the South. As a Southerner who told one of my professors in Divinity School that the South is a place “I love to long from afar,” I am glad to find here another storied, historically proud culture.

When it comes to historical monuments, I never fail to be stirred by the Lincoln Memorial on the front of your Order of Service. Not only do I admire Lincoln for doing so much to hold the Union together when it broke apart, but the pool on the national mall seems to reflect, in its image of that monument, the best egalitarian ideals of this democracy.

Perhaps it’s unexpected then that in the wake of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when an urgent effort to dismantle monuments to the Confederacy gained speed, the immediate cry in my soul as a Southerner was “Take them down!   Get them out of here!”   No doubts, no questions, no regrets. “Take them down!”

To explain this, I might tell you that I grew up in an unusual pocket of the South, in Eastern Tennessee, where at least initially sympathies lay predominantly with the Union rather than the South. My home town of Knoxville even tried to secede from the secession. I grew up learning that Civil War was fought to abolish slavery.

When, I went to teach English at Auburn University in Alabama, I was shocked to learn that my students knew the conflict as the War Between the States or, worse, the War of Northern Aggression. I was shocked to hear that in high school, they had stood when Dixie was played. They believed the war had been about states’ rights without quite understanding that the right these states insisted on was the right to own human beings of African ancestry –states’ rights in profound moral conflict with the basic human right to freedom.

I could tell you about participating in my own small way in the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s and in protests against racial segregation in the 1980’s. I could go through as many contortions as humanly possible to disassociate myself from “that South” and from the deep original sin that has been part of this nation since its founding. But in truth, the passionate debates at the Thanksgiving table with an aunt who believed blacks had not been lynched in the South and my identification as being from “another South” are, in the end, denial. It’s the same denial that people in New England or the Midwest or any other place exhibit when they insist that racism and white supremacy are Southern problems, that they don’t exist here, that the very whiteness of the culture itself doesn’t indicate a lack of inclusion and opportunity.

Those years in Alabama opened my eyes to a harsh reality. As much as we would like to believe racism will disappear with generations, when we don’t dismantle it and educate people, they pass it on. The most chilling thing about the Charlottesville rally to me, apart from the violence and the Tiki torches mirroring 1930’s Nazi rallies, was the nature of the crowd: mostly young white men in their 20’s and 30’s. The appeal of the past is still strong.

Why am I preaching about this here?  Isn’t this “just politics”?  Well, friends, while my passion comes as a complicated companion to my Southern heritage, it also emerges from my faith as a Unitarian Universalist. In this tradition, we are committed to seeking truth. Indeed, the fourth of our seven fundamental principles is commitment to a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” “Responsible search” --- a whole search, an- eyes- wide-open search, a search that considers carefully whether the image before us, like the visage of Narcissus gazing into the pool, simply reflects ourselves and what we want to see, or whether it remains a clear vision of truth in the light of any day.

We cannot rationalize away the choices we make in telling our history and    what they mean. When we say monuments are simply part of history and heritage, which must always be preserved, that begs the questions of whose heritage, but it also ignores the inherent messages they convey. Yoni Applebaum wrote that the Confederate monuments are “visible inscriptions of white supremacy” in the “American landscape.”  And the mayor of New Orleans said after taking down three public monuments to the Confederacy, “they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge of this city.”

Most of these monuments went up in the period between Reconstruction and before Jim Crow. For a while, African American men in the former Confederacy had suffrage, ran for public office, published newspaper, marched in militias, ran businesses. Then Jim Crow laws disenfranchised as many blacks at the polls as possible, an effort has seen renewed vigor and calculation in recent years. Part of the early effort was glorification of the Confederacy. When the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville was unveiled in 1924, the master of ceremonies called Lee “the greatest man who ever lived.” The president of Washington and Lee University called him “a Christian saint” who embodied the “moral greatness of the Old South.” I know exactly what “the moral greatness of the Old South” is code for: when men were men and women were women, when blacks stayed in their place, and when white men sat astride the pedestals of power and ownership. Take them down.

Of course, taking down monuments is only one more step, a largely symbolic one, and the really hard work is dismantling the white supremacy in our own structures of economic opportunity, in hiring practices, in voter identification laws, in the dark and murky depths of the waters of social media manipulation, in our own heads and hearts. It means really looking at the images we reflect to the world and seeking the truth underneath them. This spring, our Unitarian Universalist universe came to a seminal moment when we realized we must reckon with truth. Our hiring practices had not been living up to the ideals we want so much to reflect:  the equality that would grant people of color a fair chance to land jobs with a higher level of responsibility. The people of color among us have demanded the rest of us pay attention to this, and we are trying to find our way. Most of our ministers and many of our congregations are committed to that work, something this congregation needs to take on as well.

Where do we start?  A couple of people here are discussing forming an anti-racism group that would begin with conversations within our congregation about white privilege. Beginning next Sunday, at Julie Parker Amery’s envisioning, our Young Church will begin an anti-racism unit. We need to stay alert and get out into that square with our witness when the “fierce urgency of the moment” calls for it. And what about this?  We start telling our history with clear eyes. Friends, when my ancestors were deciding whether to fight for either the Confederacy or the Union, members of this congregation owned slaves and profited from it. Sea captains participated in the triangle trade. What if we found out as much about that history as we can, and we told as an important story in this congregation’s history, along with stories of persistence, and steeple building, and religious freedom?

Did you know that certain pews in the corner of the gallery were designated for the slaves of owners in this congregation? Perhaps along with a plaque to commemorate the preservation of the steeple, we need a plaque on those pews to declare this history. Let’s make the firing of the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson for too fierce an advocacy of abolition as important a story as the long ministries of others.

In the end, the monuments that lift up our deepest and highest ideals and    point us toward a future in which we can truly dream a new world are the most important. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Park moves us because it focuses on the experience of those who traveled it. I am touched deeply by the Vietnam memorial Wall because it manages both to honor the fallen and to remember that the war was a tragedy. The Washington Monument will survive because it reaches to the heavens with the highest, deepest values of the founders of this republic. Our founders were not perfect; they participated in the national sin. But their lives, and work, embodied ideals that could evolve with changing history. They deserve to stand.

Not so those that look only backward, to the worst in our history. Every day, of every year, I would say about those monuments:  Take them down. Then let’s get about creating the world of which we dream.

 

Sources
Dailey, Jane. “Confederate General Who Was Erased.”  Huffington Post, August 21, 2017.
https://www.nps.gov/hatu/index.htm
Williams, Timothy. "Why Is Harriet Tubman Facing South?" 
New York Times, November 13, 2008.