America unreconstructed: This is a good time to remember Grant

America unreconstructed: This is a good time to remember Grant
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Leonardo DiCaprio's seven-hour television series last week on Ulysses S. Grant, inspired by the masterful opus of author Ron Chernow, was all the more compelling in the context of a black man senselessly killed by police in Minneapolis.

Grant, falsely maligned for a century, was a great general (superior to the oft sainted Robert E. Lee), a better-than-average president and the most important champion of racial justice of any president in the 100 years between Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson.

This focus on Grant is a corrective of his place in history and a reminder that the Confederate cause and its leaders were not noble. The cause was slavery, and it was a betrayal of the country.


Yet the recent killings of black men in Minnesota and Georgia and the protests — some violent — are a reminder of persistent racism. Still in America over 150 years after the Civil War, there are offensive tributes to that dishonorable “cause”:

These are all racist dog whistles.

When a group of predominately white protesters in Michigan are waiving Confederate flags, it isn't about Southern heritage — it's an angry message with racial overtones.

The Civil War wasn't about state's rights or a special way or life; it was about the enslavement of 4 million black people. The leaders weren't heroes deserving of monuments; they sought to dissolve the United States. If they had succeeded, you might be reading in German or Russian or Chinese.

Trump, in defending those pro-Confederate demonstrators at Charlottesville three years ago, claimed he was honoring history and that Lee was a great general who embodied that heritage.


That's the same argument some have used for years in defending the hundreds of Confederate memorials around Virginia. The pretense is that they were put up right after the Civil War; actually, the vast majority were erected in the 20th century, first as Jim Crow gained prominence and then as a slap at the civil rights movement.

This year, Democrats in the Virginia state legislature finally approved a measure that would give local governments — after hearings and due consideration — the option to remove memorials. They could be put in museums, as opposed to the public square where they are an affront to African Americans and others.

Most Republicans pronounced this an assault on Virginia's cherished history. "We remember our past," declared State Sen. Amanda Chase, who's running for governor, “and we learn from it.”

When it comes to the past, Sen. Chase's memories are selective. While there are hundreds of memorials to Civil War Confederates, as of a few years ago there only four celebrating the American revolution and seven paying tribute to those who fought in World War II.

Worse, there still are states that fly versions of the Confederate flag, and Tennessee — for the past 42 years — has had a day of observation to honor Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest whose statute sits in the state capitol.

Other than Grant, Forrest — along with the Union's William Tecumseh Sherman — may have been the best general in the civil war. He also was a vicious racist, a slave trader and, after the war, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He had a late-in-life conversion, but the family tradition continued; his grandson was the Klan's grand dragon in Georgia a half-century later.

Under pressure, Gov. Bill Lee has sought to end the requirement that the state honor Forrest every July 13, which was enacted in 1978. That has passed the state House but not the state Senate. Without action in another 40 days, the state again will honor the first leader of this despicable organization.

Lest this all be seen as rants from an anti-Southern Yankee, I was born in Virginia and cherish that state's history — apart from its insurrection against America. Also, those who say this is all about our “heritage” should read the words of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu when he took down Confederate statues in his city.

“These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy,” which, he said, “was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery.”

There's enough racial justice pain in America today without resurrecting those earlier sins.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.