Following the killing of George Floyd, NASCAR and the United States Marines banned displays of Confederate flags, corporate America is going all in to eradicate racial bias from the workplace and “Gone With the Wind” is being repurposed to explain just how terrible slavery really was.
Yet congressional Republicans seem stuck in another era. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team McConnell says he made 'inadvertent omission' in voting remarks amid backlash These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 MORE (R-Ky.) rejected demands to remove Confederate statues from the National Statuary Hall collection in the Capitol Building. He called it “nonsense that we need to airbrush the Capitol and scrub out everybody from years ago who had any connection to slavery.” McConnell suggested that the decision to remove the statues should be made by the states.
The real nonsense is McConnell’s suggestion that slavery and the Civil War are just minor imperfections and blemishes and that the Confederate soldiers and politicians whose statues stand in the Capitol Building only had a “connection” to slavery. As General (Ret) David H. Petraeus recently pointed out, the Confederate leaders “committed treason” by taking up arms against their country. And they had much more than a “connection” to slavery.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who has a statue in the Capitol, was a slave owner whose armies killed some 350,000 American soldiers in a war the South fought to create a nation based on the proposition that “the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” The author of that racist principle was Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, who is also honored with a statue.
McConnell and the Republicans are really trying to keep a sectional bargain struck in the decades after the Civil War to end the deeply-rooted bitterness. The North and South agreed that each side fought gallantly in the war but, and this was central to the bargain, refrained from questioning the motives each had for fighting.
Conveniently omitted from the bargain were the former slaves, who were left to the tender mercies of white supremacists in the former Confederate states. The bargain facilitated the South’s celebration of the gauzy myth known as the Lost Cause and the legalized oppression of blacks. White supremacy and resistance to the civil rights movement were reinforced by Confederate symbols. These included Confederate battle flags; naming military bases, streets and schools after Confederate soldiers; and Confederate statues, such as the ones in Statuary Hall.
But George Floyd’s death and the nation’s convulsions over a 400 year legacy of racism, show how unacceptable it is that the statue of Wade Hampton of South Carolina, for example, stands in the Capitol (or anywhere else). Before the Civil War Hampton managed his family’s plantation with nearly a thousand slaves, and during the war was a Confederate cavalry commander. After the war, he raised money for the defense of members of the Klu Klux Klan indicted by the Department of Justice for attacking blacks. In 1876, with the assistance of a private white militia called the “Red Shirts,” who used violence to intimidate black voters, Hampton ran successfully for governor.
His election inaugurated an era in which blacks were terrorized so effectively that the notorious Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman (D-S.C.) later remarked that “we have not shot any negroes in South Carolina on account of politics since 1876. We have not found it necessary.” Ben Tillman’s statue is not in Statuary Hall, but it does stand on the grounds of the South Carolina State House.
McConnell argues that “there were eight presidents who owned slaves. Washington did. Jefferson did. Madison did. Monroe did.” True, but the Founding Fathers also risked their lives in the American Revolution to create the United States with a democratic government and thereafter remained faithful to it. Treason matters, Mitch.
The immoral compromises that once got Americans through a fraught racial history are no longer tenable. Republicans, faced with a clear-cut, urgent choice, could have honored equality and justice by calling for the removal of the statues. Instead, they have chosen to honor men who betrayed their country under the banner of slavery.
Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author of the historical novel, “Two Men Before the Storm: Arba Crane’s Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case That Started The Civil War.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.