OpEd: Charlottesville Changed My Mind on Removing Confederate Monuments

Image: Removal of Confederate Statues
A gathering of hundreds of white nationalists in Virginia took a deadly turn when a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters and killed at least one person.Mark Peterson / Redux Pictures

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By Sophia A. Nelson

“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” President Trump on Twitter

I recently wrote a piece suggesting that a great nation does not hide from nor ignore its history. I believed then that America and Americans were bigger than our past and that statues of Confederate war heroes, or men who owned slaves, should not be removed, but instead be studied, discussed and pointed out for who and what America once was in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Then came the events of August 12, 2017 and the open ugliness of Nazis, white supremacists, and the KKK marching near Mr. Jefferson’s beloved University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. I live in Leesburg, Virginia, which is about an hour away. These events took place in my backyard so to speak. My fellow Virginians of all colors were talking about it at the grocery store, Starbucks and in church the next day. We were in a collective state of disbelief that such events could take place in such a peaceful, diverse and historic town.

Like most Americans, I was stunned, horrified, and appalled at the spectacle of angry white men marching openly in the streets with torches, chanting Nazisms -- and doing so with no sheets on their heads. David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK, ultimately congratulated the president along with white nationalist Richard Spencer for not condemning their ilk when he had the chance in his remarks that Saturday afternoon.

But here’s what really changed my mind about the monuments: Those young white men dressed in “Trump khakis” and red “Make America Great Again” Hats. They were shouting. Angry. Carrying torches. Punching and spitting at people.

These are America’s sons. Future leaders. College-aged boys who have been radicalized by white supremacist groups who have convinced them that the black and brown, the Jewish and Muslim are taking something from them that is rightfully theirs.

We must push back against this radicalization because it is every bit as dangerous as ISIS, the Taliban and other terrorist groups that target young men (and women) and teach them how to hate, kill and destroy other human beings. These young men are being preyed upon because of their social station in life, their fears and their misunderstanding of the very history they seek to protect.

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Remembering is powerful. Remembering, forces us to become wiser. But if these confederate symbols and monuments are going to be used as a rallying cry for the KKK and other hate groups to divide our nation further then we must remove them all, now. But know that we do so at our peril. At peril to our freedoms of speech, association, and freedom to disagree.

If these confederate symbols and monuments are going to be used as a rallying cry for the KKK and other hate groups to divide our nation further then we must remove them all, now.

I believe that history helps us to heal if we view it through a lens of truth and honesty. If we dare to see it as it was, not through our rose-colored 21st century glasses.

Earlier this week I ventured to both Montpelier and Monticello. The plantation homes of our nation’s 3rd and 4th US Presidents. Both slave holders. Both men who championed freedom, liberty and equality yet denied it to their own fellow men, who were black.

I spent some time this week reflecting on these two men and their legacy. In a conversation with CEO of Montpelier, Kat Imhoff, we talked openly about President Trump’s question of whether we should remove the statues of our founding fathers. Would it be Washington? Jefferson? Or someone like Madison whose statues we remove because they too were slave holders?

The answer is of course no. These men were “founding fathers” and revolutionaries. They are more than statues or monuments. They are American heroes, statesmen.

Yet, if we are going to tell the truth about these men; they were also cruel callous slave owning task masters, who built their wealth and their legacy on the backs of black people for hundreds of years. Black people they sold. Black people whose families they ripped apart. Black people who contributed handsomely to the financial riches of the American colonies up through the rural economy of the Jim Crow south, and got little to no financial reward over the course of hundreds of years.

Related: Opinion: This Is Us: Charlottesville Is the Ugly Wake-Up Call America Needed

In the final analysis, that old demon of race has reared its head once again in America’s streets. A young woman is dead, dozens of people wounded, and hateful rhetoric was given a pass by the American president who seemed to condone it, cover it, and make excuses for it.

We will never heal from our racial past and our wounds until we start telling the truth about our history. Regrettably, the confederacy can no longer be part of that public history in that we will see monuments erected honoring men who made treason against the Union.

Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, KKK and members of the "alt-right" hurl water bottles back and forth against counter demonstrators on the outskirts of Emancipation Park during the Unite the Right rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

I do think we must put these statues in museums, and keep these men in our history books because they are part of our history. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

It’s time for us to face the truth about how much damage our history has done to black people in America, and yes, to white people. This is still largely a black and white issue because of how America started.

Nazis are fringe. White supremacist are fringe. The KKK is fringe. But what is not on the “fringe” is racial hate, racial fear, and the hearts of everyday Americans who live by stereotypes of what they think they know about black, brown, Jewish or other people unlike them.

That is where we must wage war. That is where we must seek change. That is where we must start the dialogue on using our history to heal.

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