There was a rather Klannish Lost Cause Fest rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. I have an old friend who is a native Virginian and longtime Charlottesville resident. I reached out to him, asking for a local’s perspective. He has blogged in the past as Parenthetical, so we revived that pen name for this post. We begin with a photo of Lost Cause Fest, Virginia Style:
Take it away, Parenthetical:
It was a good weekend for home and garden sections around town. Richard Spencer, the UVA alumnus who has been banned from 25 European countries for his supremacist efforts, found an excuse to come back to Charlottesville last Saturday. Some folks carry a torch for their college sweetheart, but Spencer returned to carry a tiki torch for a Robert E. Lee statue that has been endangered by a recent bout of citizen input. Spencer’s appearance made national news because the unofficial leader of the Alt White got several dozen other folks to carry torches, too. (The revolution begins on Aisle 8, just follow the scent of victim complexes and lemongrass. Be careful with that lamp oil, Eugene.)
As an Albemarle County resident who lives about 10 minutes away from the statue, this protest was unwelcome, but even in a town like C’ville, it wasn’t that surprising. In the election-year yard sign wars, Trump/Pence dominated once you got even ten minutes out of town. Plus there’s the occasional Confederate flag you’ll still see in yards not much further out.
Another reason: I grew up an hour down the road in 1970s Richmond, where the memories and grudges of the Late Unpleasantness were so pervasive and entrenched that a kid wouldn’t even recognize them as such. Let’s hit the highlights.
My first Little League game was at Jefferson-Davis Elementary. My mother bought me some old Civil War board game at a yard sale, and I was always the South as a matter of course (my choice, she didn’t care). I went to private school for one year early on, and they used even/odd birthdays to divide us into two standing groups for purposes of recess/exercises/lunch/etc. You were either a Jackson or a Lee. This was over a century after Appomattox. Jacksons and Lees.
That doesn’t even get us down to Monument Avenue, with its stretch of formidable tributes to the Confederate giants. There’s Jackson, Lee, Davis … and thanks to his eponymous Circle, you even know exactly where J.E.B. Stuart is at all times (which goes to show how nostalgia always winds up improving on truth at least a little).
There’s a Southern accent where I come from, and I can’t imagine feeling truly at home anywhere else. Yet it was pretty easy to spend one’s entire youth blind to the discomfort and second-tier status that black families have faced daily from these persistent reminders, down to having to be a “Rebel” if you attend a certain high school (no, that hasn’t changed). You could probably still go your whole life in Richmond and never hear the word “treason” associated with the men so elegantly preserved for posterity on the avenue.
It was only well into adulthood before I recognized words like “treason” and “traitor” as relevant on par with the more familiar compliments. Yet all of those men knew exactly what they were doing back then. They surely knew that if they survived but weren’t victorious, they would likely face life in prison or death for their choice. Credit where it’s due, there’s bravery in that.
In the event that they lost, they sure didn’t expect to see their names plastered on dozens of schools and military bases for generations after the war. I bet those bleeding-heart Yankees regret going overboard with that aspect of postbellum make-nice — allowing names of the leaders of the insurrection to get set in concrete atop government installations(!), to be followed by their profiles cast in metal and literally placed on pedestals.
There they would remain throughout the South, waiting for the inevitable stares and questions from the next young wave of the Confederacy’s descendants, and then the next. They provided steadfast validation of the lost cause’s legitimacy, feeding an addiction to grievance when it should have been starved.
Which brings us back to Charlottesville 2017 and Klan Lite rallies, with milquetoast “What, these torches? But it’s dark out here!” attempts at intimidation by racists both too dumb and/or too timid to wear sheets. These folks like to lean on some government obligation toward “tradition” and “heritage” in these debates, but they don’t realize (or don’t let on that they realize) it was only the Civil Rights Act that brought the Confederate flag back out of the pickup truck windows and bedroom closets and museums and into vogue again around certain statehouses. Again, grievance about the loss of privilege, posing as pride.
Reasonable people can disagree about the statues. Even the mayor of this comparatively liberal island in central Virginia, a man who condemned this little tantrum flambe immediately, has supported keeping the Lee statue in place. It’s complicated. Still, when the mayor said, “This event involving torches at night in Lee Park was either profoundly ignorant or was designed to instill fear in our minority populations in a way that hearkens back to the days of the KKK,” all I wanted to say was, “Yeah, I think that’s what they call a false choice, bub.”
What government of the people and for the people can prioritize the discriminatory worldview of a long-gone era over the right of each living, breathing citizen to feel equally welcome in public spaces? Over a person’s confidence in the full true weight of their equality under the law? The next decision in the ongoing legal wrangling over the Lee statue is due in June.
At the end of the day, a culture should not ignore its history, but there’s a lot of room between remembering and celebrating. Buoyed by the knowledge of that history and the wisdom (hopefully) imparted by time, a community has the right to choose its heroes. Just ask all the folks who renamed their entire counties after Confederates. Today, we can surrender that power to now-dead, all-white committees who made decisions in meeting rooms down the hall from the colored water fountain — people who, let’s face it, weren’t commissioning those statues so we could “learn from the darker parts of our history,” — or we can choose better.