Build The Beloved Community Through Binding Up The Nation's Wounds

Monday, August 14, 2017

The events that occurred in Charlottesville are painfully reminiscent of a not to distant past, when the shrouds of legally sanctioned discrimination, racism, and bigotry sought to be the destructive vices that defined us as a nation. What sparked the need for the Unite the Right rally and subsequent counter protest was the removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E, Lee, famed commander of the the Army of Northern Virginia.

It must be noted, in the aftermath of the shooting of nine peaceful parishioners, including S.C. State Senator and pastor Clemente Pinckney, at Emanuel AME Church by Dylan Roof on June 17, 2015, South Carolina removed its state flag one month later. Many municipalities across the nation have or are considering adopting similar measures, most prominently New Orleans, the former home to the nation's largest slave market.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu provided an eloquent address in May as to why removing four Confederate monuments was the right thing to do, including as he stated, "Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. Here is the essential truth: we are better together."

As he noted, many Confederate monuments were erected during the nation's most tumultuous race relations periods. The first wave commenced early in the 20th century after Plessy v Ferguson (1896) which established the Separate but Equal doctrine. Another seminal event that defined this era was the screening of the film The Birth of a Nation by President Woodrow Wilson in the White House in March of 1915, which was symbolic of the vast incidents of mob violence and acts of injustice that was then sweeping across the nation. During a 1919 mass meeting in  Carnegie Hall, NAACP Field Secretary James Weldon Johnson described a meeting he had with Wilson which was meant to discuss the Houston/Camp Logan affair that saw more than 60 black troops forced to endure the largest court martial in U. S. history. Johnson also vividly detailed the horrific case of Jim McIlherron which took place in Tennessee. When he had finished Wilson simply replied that he'd never heard of the case. Johnson then vowed to make everyone hear about it by putting "the raw, naked, brutal facts of this question before the whole nation until we make it sick."

The NAACP responded by dispatching field investigators such as Walter White and Elisabeth Freeman to the scenes of racial terror events and placed their findings in the report Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States 1889-1918. Likewise,  the Equal Justice Initiative have documented more than 4,000 lynchings in their Lynching in America report (2015). A second wave of monument erections occurred as a correlation of Brown v. Board (1954) and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. 

Many supporters of Confederate monuments have offered several reasons why they should remain intact, such as failing to preserve history; honoring soldiers; and the fear of losing cultural heritage and identity. Others say they should remain as a reminder of a hallowing and harboring past.

Memphis is one area where both sides of this argument persists as they wrestle with monuments to figures such as Nathan Bedford Forrest. Opponents have argued that incidents such as the massacre at Fort Pillow and his association with supremacist groups disqualifies him from receiving such honors. Supporters contend that many that served with him were dozens of former slaves he freed,and that his speech before the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, an early black civil rights organization, demonstrated policies that he pushed such as accommodation later in his life.

The issue is made more pretentious because of the Tennessee Heritage and Protection Act, which states that a two-thirds majority vote of the Tennessee Historical Commission is required in order to change or remove a monument, symbol or rename streets and buildings. Yet, the Act lacks inclusiveness as the contributions of African-Americans is relegated to irrelevancy if not outright ignored.

One example is Fort Negley in Nashville, which after decades of neglect reopened to the public in 2004. Built primarily by African-Americans, it's the largest inland fortification built during the War. It was the scene of one of the pivotal battles in which USCT soldiers fought as they opposed the last remnants of Hood's Army of Tennessee. After witnessing their bravery and courage during the battle, General George Thomas turned to aides and said, "The question is settled, Negro soldiers will fight." Fort Negley today is an endangered place because of gentrification. Oddly enough, Chattanooga's 44th USCT which was present at the Battle of Nashville had fought gallantly at Dalton months earlier where many were massacred after being forced to surrender. It's worth noting that black laborers and troops helped construct Chattanooga National Cemetery, and neither the USCT, nor Thomas, who saved the Union Army at Chickamauga, held it intact during the Confederate siege, ordered the construction of National Cemetery, and whose troops stormed Missionary Ridge to win the Battle of Chattanooga have an adequate Memorial, yet the bust to General Forrest remains inside the Tennessee State capital rotunda.

The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism estimate hate crimes soared more than 20 percent in 2016, and the Southern Poverty Law Center is tracking more than 1,600 extremist groups, 900 hate groups, and more than 1,300 reported bias incidents since the 2016 presidential election. It’s ironic that as the Civil War was coming to a conclusion, Lincoln would try to bring the nation together by saying, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds.”

It was in this spirit that a century later Dr. King would urge us to build the Beloved Community through tolerance, reconciliation, standing opposed to injustice, and remaining steadfast for human rights. This should be our example as we remember that anger only gives rise to anger; violence only begets violence; hatred fosters further hatred; evil fuels more evil; but love is the strongest of these and conquers them all. 

Eric Atkins

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