On April 26, 1865, my great-great-grandfather was camped a mere five miles from where I now live in Durham, NC. He was from the upstate of South Carolina, as am I, yet there he was and here I am. The historians among us know what happened that day in 1865. Confederate General Johnston surrendered to United States General Sherman, ostensibly ending The War. Yet vestiges of that war continued on and on and on. It was played out again in Durham this past Monday night when a crowd toppled a confederate monument and, of course, that skirmish came on the heels of death-dealing encounters in Charlottesville, VA, last Saturday. As one steeped in Southern history and also leading the North Carolina Council of Churches, I think it’s fair to say I’m standing on the edge of the coin able to see both sides. I see the honor of the South and I see the frustration of those who are tired of oppression-reminders. As Faulker said, “The past is not dead, it’s not even past.”
The South’s was a “lost cause” from the beginning, not because defending slavery is dishonorable (of course it is), but because the best thing the South had going for it was enthusiasm. Outnumbered and outspent, it was only a matter of time before they would lose and that time came after four long years. Losing is hard even when your victors grant you amnesty. Lee, Davis, and others could have been tried for treason; those who have done less in opposition to the Constitution have died for it. For the losers, one of the coping mechanisms was to re-narrate the cause of the conflict as states rights, to commemorate the dead on town square monuments, and to validate the leaders in stone. Granite, marble, and steel allow Lee and others to keep riding into our lives long after they should have been dead and buried.
What happened in Charlottesville, however, has nothing to do with an honorable people who fought a dishonorable war and lost. Turning a car into a weapon of destruction is an evil act. That kind of evil is forged in the cauldrons of hatred and bigotry. Inventing, at a presidential press conference, a new category known as the alt-left does not balance a century of death and destruction (and that’s not counting the 400 years of legalized slavery). There is no excuse for violence in any quarter, but no one, not even the president, can claim that throwing punches–or even a rock–at a “peaceful” demonstration is the same thing as decades of lynchings, rapes, murders, and firebombs systematically targeted at all those who are not-white and those who stand on the side of the not-white. This is the infection in our democracy that was never rooted out, an infection that strengthens and weakens on the basis of its host body. The host, this country, is not healthy right now and the infection is spreading.
When our leaders invent new phrases to shroud the truth, the contagion gains strength. The ideals we espouse as Americans are only as good as those who offer an antidote to the poison by naming the evil. The North Carolina Council of Churches goes on record as those who are willing to name the evil.