It seems today that there is a lot of cloudiness in terms of American history, and there are a lot of emotions coming to the forefront as currency for the social strife. Because the nation is so polarized, it’s fair to say that in general, on one side tensions are high because enough is enough and the time for addressing racism and police brutality is now. On the other side, people feel as if their very heritage is being attacked, or even that their way of life is being bombarded by enemies.
If you find yourself standing firmly on either one of these sides, it is likely you feel very strongly that the other side is clearly in the wrong. While it’s okay to feel strongly about your convictions, but in times of social tension like this, it’s also important to think about past precedents and the heavy toll of the disagreements between sides in our country.
Slavery – A Dark Stain on the American Flag
Slavery in America pre-dates the birth of the nation by over 150 years. In the interest of stripping away 400 years of growing numb to the reality of black slavery, perhaps it’s better to put it this way: African men, women and children who were captured were shipped over sold as a commodity in our colonies. It matters very little whether they were sold into the slave trade by other Africans or Europeans; it set an early bias in our land that somehow black skin color meant less than white skin. While slavery has long since passed away on paper, the same seeds and sprouts of racism are still here.
In truth, America was built on the backs of blacks, by their sweat and blood. Treated similarly to farm animals, they were quite literally bred so that future generations of black people would be better at doing the hardest work. Enormous plantations with hundreds of slaves fueling the cotton trade of the country became a normal thing, but not at the same rate within the North and the South.
In the North in the middle 1800s, where the industrial revolution was about to take its first roots, it was far less common to have slaves – and since the common white man did neither depend on slavery for their welfare, nor get as much exposure to slavery being a “normal part of life,” a schism between the North and the South started to take place. In the North, there were increasingly louder calls for abolition, and it became a key political point for the newly formed Republican Party.
The South, who still depended on slavery to keep their wealth and way of life, feared the movement to end slavery. The main cause for the South seceding was because the North wanted to make all of the Western territories slavery-free, while the Southerners wanted to extend their practices westward. Contrary to popular belief, a movement in the North to end the existing practice of slavery in the existing Southern states was not a majority view.
Here’s the thing many people don’t quite understand about that time – while there were many people in the North who felt slavery was wrong, less than that felt that black slaves were truly equal to white skinned citizens. The seeds of racism were still there.
Even Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest president this country has ever seen, did not believe that freed blacks should have the same rights as white Americans. The same man who issued the powerful Emancipation Proclamation also believed that sending them back to Africa in a “separate but equal” colony in Liberia, would solve the issue of slavery. While Lincoln’s views were known to change through his career, so there’s no telling what he might have believed had he been allowed to continue on his path by the end.
No matter what he believed as a consequence of the times in which he lived, he still freed the slaves, and that did more for black men in America than anyone before him. Though blacks were free from bondage, they are still looked by some as worth less than whites in this country, and this is the underlying issue that has always challenged our claim that America is the “land of the free.”
Today’s Fight and Why History Matters
Undoubtedly, you are likely aware of the movement Black Lives Matter. If you are like this writer, the first time you heard the name of the cause, you probably thought “well, of course black lives matter, but all lives matter, really.” We live in a fairly fortunate time in which our generation has readily accepted blacks as equals to whites when it comes to pursuing the American dream. After all, we are the generation that stood up in 2008 and again in 2012 to vote for our first black president. However, institutionalization of racist sentiment has not yet caught up with the good people of the idealist generations who will inherit the world.
The main cause of the outcry of the Black Lives Matter movement is against police brutality, specifically against black people. Looking at the website Mapping Police Violence, one can see the statistics clearly:
Black people have been 28% of those killed by police since 2013 despite being only 13% of the population.
Slavery as an institution may have been proclaimed dead in 1863, but the seeds of racism still are there. The ultimate goal of Black Lives Matter is to uproot those seeds once and for all.
So what’s the deal with the statues, and why are so many people trying to pull them down? Many people see this as an attack on their heritage, and rightfully so – they’ve been around longer in many cases than the people who are the most upset about their destruction. To many people, this is destruction of beautiful artwork, that honors ancestors. But to others, these statues stand as an oppressive symbol against them.
Monuments had already been erected in battlefields and other places to honor the Union soldiers who had fallen in the war. However, the real issue that protesters have is not with these monuments and statues, but with other statues – the ones honoring Confederate officers.
After the Civil War ended, black people were not readily accepted into white society. A period of time followed with heavy segregation governed by so-called Jim Crow laws intended to keep black people down. The statues were erected during this time, many of them in city squares, as a way of reminding blacks that this is not their home, that they are not welcome there.
While some people with mob mentality have erroneously equated all Civil War statues with these oppressive symbols of Southern racism, rather than just the Confederate statues, the point still stands that these statues mean something entirely different for blacks than it does for Southern whites.
So, ask yourself: is it really worth escalating the conflict further, based on this information?
Even though the institution of slavery was always wrong, the Southerners at least fought to protect themselves from financial destruction. Many of you are claiming to be willing to march off to war because you want to protect some symbols of hatred and racism.
Major General John F. Reynolds of the Union Army, who was considered by many at the time as the best general in the United States, was shot dead at the very beginning of the battle of Gettyburg. He died a noble death, fighting to make sure that our country did not fall. You can still see the hill on which he was killed if you visit Gettysburg today.
The question you have to ask yourself about keeping the Confederate statues standing in cities and not in museums is this: is this really the hill you’re willing to die on?
Perhaps it’s time we all respond to General Reynolds’ dying call to action and “drive these fellows out of the woods” for the unity of our country, which, to be clear, is the United States of America – not the Confederate States of America.