New Orleans, Robert E. Lee and the South’s treasonous history of alternative facts
My commute on Lee Highway shows the ordinariness of American racism
Every day, I turn onto Lee Highway, named in honor of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The road, a section of an early transcontinental auto route winding from Washington, D.C., to San Diego, is part of my daily commute from Northern Virginia. The history it commemorates is part of the American sickness — white supremacy and terrorism, aided by selective amnesia — and it stretches everywhere. It’s not something I rail against regularly. Like most racist iconography, like racism itself, the ordinariness of it renders it almost invisible. Such is the banality of evil.
I was reminded anew of that Confederate history last week as I watched a live broadcast of a bronze 16.5-foot statue of Lee being removed from its 60-foot-high perch overlooking a city square in New Orleans. The statue, which had allegedly stood watch against Northern aggression for more than 130 years, was the last of four Confederate monuments removed by the city beginning last month after years of debate, lawsuits, and protests both for and against.
The removals, proposed by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and approved by the New Orleans City Council in a 6-to-1 vote, are part of a national paroxysm of reconsideration of Confederate symbols after the 2015 killing of nine black worshippers at a South Carolina church by a white shooter who wrapped himself in the rebel flag. Monument supporters argued that the statues represented Southern heritage. Critics charged they represented revisionist history and pain.
Last month, the Liberty Monument — honoring the Crescent City White League, which tried to overthrow a biracial, post-Civil War New Orleans government — was removed. A monument to slave owner and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was removed May 11. The monument to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, who ordered the shots at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, that began the Civil War, was taken down May 16. The city gave no notice when it removed the first three statues, and contractors worked at night and wore masks to protect their faces and remain anonymous after receiving death threats. One contractor quit after an arsonist set his car on fire.
The removal of the Lee statue on Friday was the first done in broad daylight, and it was greeted with music and cheers of support.
In a news conference, Landrieu recounted the diverse history of New Orleans, from its Native American inhabitants to its present-day “cauldron of many cultures.” A uniquely American model, he called it, “but there are also other truths about our city that we must confront.” He said the city was the site of one of America’s largest slave markets, trafficking in misery, rape and torture. Of the roughly 4,000 lynching cases in the United States, 540 took place in Louisiana alone, Landrieu said. He pointed to courts that enshrined the idea of separate but equal, and he recalled Freedom Riders beaten to a pulp.
“When people say to me the monuments describe history, well, what I just described to you is history as well,” the mayor said, pointing out that there are few if any monuments to that darker history on the soil of New Orleans. “We cannot be afraid of the truth,” Landrieu continued. “The Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity,” and despite more than a century of rebranding, “it is self-evident that these men did not fight for the U.S., they fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.”
It was as strident a denunciation of the cult of the “Lost Cause” — the Confederate symbols and the philosophical underpinnings that fashioned them in marble, held them billowing aloft or emblazoned them across road signs — as I have heard from a modern politician. But it doesn’t change a mile of my commute.
These stirring words and dramatic gestures are simply too big, too macro, too sweeping and infrequent to contain the routine interactions with racism that mark every day for every citizen on this American journey. They’re simply too highfalutin for a motorist taking Lee Highway to get to work on time. The granularity of that is part of the menace and genius of racism.
As Ibram X. Kendi points out in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won a 2016 National Book Award, American history is a story of both racial progress and racist progress. Adaptation is the primary feature animating both these forces.
There are more than 1,503 Confederate place names and public symbols nationwide, according to a 2016 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center. These include 718 monuments or statues; 109 public schools named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis or other Confederates; 80 Confederate county or city names; nine Confederate holidays in six states; and 10 U.S. military bases — particularly Orwellian, since the Confederacy was a treasonous uprising against the U.S. government.
There’s a word for all this Confederate-lovin’.
The idea of “normalizing” recently gained traction in the wake of resistance to the election of Donald Trump as president, but there’s nothing new about the concept or its application. It was part and parcel of the introduction of traitorous symbols and revisionist Old South history into the nooks, crannies and fabric of American life beginning with the end of Reconstruction. The embedding of those symbols into our national marrow helped further the notion that there are two equally American opinions on the Confederate legacy, which is wrong. As I wrote two years ago in The Washington Post, there are two sides to this debate only in so much as some Americans have been allowed to lie to themselves, and others have enabled them with the soft bigotry of low expectations.
The bitter divides of the current political climate, with one side apoplectic that the other side considers climate change up for debate or traffics in alternative facts, is an extension of the racist fictions that have been allowed to fester and grow for nearly 150 years. After all, isn’t there at least as much scholarship about race and what caused the Civil War as there is about atmospheric carbon? It is America’s sickness that white Southerners were able to avoid grappling with the totality and moral failing of their position (and their great-granddaddy’s position) and move on. And that white Northerners and liberals were too racist, indifferent and without wisdom enough to see the existential peril of allowing that position to continue. Every racial ill that has befallen this country and threatens now to rend us from within follows from that. You get the government you’ve enabled and allowed.
In Northern Virginia, where I moved less than a year ago to be with my husband, efforts to reckon with Confederate markers — such as removing the “Appomattox” statue in Alexandria, or changing the name of Jefferson Davis Highway — have stalled. As far back as 2004, a proposal to change the name of Lee Highway was met with opposition and anger. A leader of a group representing the descendants of Confederate veterans told The Washington Post at the time “that the move represents ‘a callous disregard’ for Lee’s memory … it’s practically inconceivable that we would just throw his name away and the memory of the man in the process.”
A two-year effort to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County received high-profile assists from alums Bruce Cohen, a Hollywood producer, and actress Julianne Moore, whose online petition has more than 35,000 signatures. But the debate is rancorous, and a committee to study the issue is divided, with even historical facts about Stuart, who commanded the cavalry of Lee’s Northern Virginia army and died after being injured in battle, in dispute.
In the old-as-dirt argument where supporters of Confederate monuments bathe in Southern heritage but are innocent of its horrors, I am reminded of the words of James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time: “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime,” Baldwin wrote. It is a crime that time and history will not forgive, “that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it, and do not want to know it.”
They want to wave their flags and do in the streets what they could not on the battlefield. Destroy the country with ignorant refusals to evolve. That is the shame that continues to stain the sons and daughters of the Confederacy.
Nicole Moliere, a New Orleans author, supported the removal of the statues but didn’t follow the effort closely. When the monuments began coming down, “it affected me because many of the statues are along my daily route on my way to go and exercise in City Park.”
For many city residents, the symbols were “part of their everyday life, and they have no idea what these statues symbolize is racist. For the target audience of that racism, this is a daily assault, but for pro-statue people, they don’t get that,” she said.
Karran Harper Royal, who lives in New Orleans and is the executive director of the GU 272 Descendants Association, which represents people whose ancestors were sold by Georgetown University, closely followed the debate and watched the removal of the Lee statue. “We’re just asking you to see from the perspective of other people,” Royal said.
Winners are supposed to write the history, but when it comes to race in America, black people seem to be the only losers history can abide. “They lost the war against the U.S. Who puts up the losers of the war when you’re the winner?” Royal asks. It is a question that is apparently too big for my Virginia neighbors.
“This country will never be as great as we can be if we don’t really reconcile this ugly past, ” says Royal.
It’s a past I’ll weigh only briefly against the drive-time considerations of my Lee Highway commute. Such is the banality of evil. It’s the only route that my county, my state, my fellow citizens have allowed me.