Today is July 4, 2020.
I feel obliged to write this italicized section, but skip it if you have a mind to. I wrote this essay for my home town paper, The Covington News, where I have been a monthly columnist since 2015. It has been on their desks for two publishing cycles – the hard paper comes out on Saturdays. BUT, to be fair, this week’s issue has two pieces that mention the Confederate monument. And mine is a bit long. One of those pieces is a pragmatic and factual front-page article by the news editor concerning a short history and the legality of moving the monument.
The other is a beautiful dedication to a beloved, fallen African-American police officer, Almond James Turner, by Eric Lee, Sr. an African-American pastor. Rev. Lee was inspired and encouraged to write his piece by a great friend to our community, The Honorable Judge Horace Johnson, who passed away unexpectedly this week.
I am a white man who feels he needs to respond to the “white people, do something!” call. But, it is also my job to know when to get out of the way.
Make Our Community More Better
When my sister Amanda —AKA, “Squiffy” — was a little girl, she used to say, “more better.” As in, “Mama, please put more syrup on my French toast. It make it more better!”
Silly grammar. Silly child.
• • •
Okay. Here goes.
Confederate monuments throughout the South are in the news, but I’ll only talk about one of those: mine. I use the singular personal possessive pronoun because I have a great sense of ownership regarding my community, and I live within earshot of the monument. Yes, I know how absurd that sentence sounds, but through my bedroom window I can clearly hear the tolling of my courthouse clock’s bell, and that bell is further away from my house then the monument, so if the fellow on top of the monument were to give the Rebel Yell, I would hear it.
This is not the first time I have written about that Confederate monument.
In the summer of 2015, after the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, I wrote a piece for this paper regarding the Confederate Battle Flag which at the time was flying on South Carolina’s Statehouse grounds. My argument concerning the flag is found on the north side of the Confederate monument here in Covington, Georgia. A short, histrionic rhyme below a bas-relief carving of the flag concludes by telling us we should put the Confederate Battle Flag away.
It reads, “…FURL ITS FOLDS… NOW WE MUST.”
Go and take a look. I dare you.
If you don’t know me, let us establish my perspective. I am a sixth-generation Newton County white man whose forebears were “landed gentry.” (I know; an eye-rolling phrase.) I was born in 1957. My first history lessons in school regarding the Civil War taught me that the whole brouhaha was about “states’ rights.”
Well, of course, it was. The war was about the Confederate States’ right to maintain an economy based on chattel slavery. That is clear within two sentences of Georgia’s Declaration of Secession:
“For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.”
Within this document, the words “slave” or “slavery” appear thirty-nine times. The term “states’ rights” appears, never.
Another primary source for the cause of secession is the infamous Cornerstone Speech, given by Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy. In Savannah on March 21, 1861, three weeks before the Civil War began at Fort Sumter, Stephens proclaimed:
“Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
• • •
The Lost Cause
The monument in Covington was erected in 1906 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The U.D.C. wanted to honor the Confederate dead and to keep alive the memory of “The Lost Cause.” Edward Pollard’s 1867 book, “The Lost Cause” created that name embraced by white Southerners for the efforts of the former Confederacy.
What strikes me is The Lost Cause was just that – lost. I find it curious how that phrase became so very romanticized, how it anchors the mythos of unreconstructed white Southerners. Alas, one can understand that, at the time, white citizens had a need to reconcile their intransigent choice to continue to enslave humans, build an entire agrarian economy around that enslavement, secede from the Union over that enslavement and go to war.
Families and land were torn asunder. Many beloved men suffered and died.
Love is blind and grief magnifies heroism. In such cases, hindsight doesn’t see 20/20. In such cases, hindsight religiously rationalizes and romanticizes. This is a form of survival.
• • •
Our Heritage and Our Scars
Growing up in a South that was segregated until I was about eleven, I suffer from childhood-onset ethnocentricity. Which is to say, I have to pay attention in a more acute way to non-white people and how they might see things.
It helps to ask questions.
Every other month or so, I make my way to The Town House Café for breakfast with my friend, The Rev. Dr. Avis Williams. Avis’s African-American family has been in the area as long as my white family has. Back in the days of the school band, I was a drummer, Avis was a flute player. So, I have been annoying her since the eighth grade.
This past May, Avis joined other pastors and community leaders at Legion Field to speak and pray in the memory of Ahmaud Arbery. A few days later, I called her to ask her opinion about the monument.
She said, “It is such a scar. It’s too ugly, Andrew. I don’t want to be constantly reminded of white supremacist thinking.”
Now, if you aren’t from around the South, “ugly” has a very specific meaning. To be “ugly” is to be cruel. Mean. Ill-mannered. Behavior unbecoming of gentlefolk. “Now, don’t be ugly.”
• • •
Center and Heart
Think of the word, “heart.” The heart of the matter. Your heart’s desire. Put your hand over your heart. The heart is a place’s center.
The Confederate monument in Covington is in the very center of the park in the very center of town. It is illuminated by spotlights at night, as if to say, “Here. This is who we are. This is our heart.”
The Lighting of the Square for the Holidays, our all-day Independence Day Celebration, Music on the Square – this park, with the monument in the center of it all, is where all these events take place.
And recently, when good citizens of our community gathered on the Square to proclaim racial equality, an event attended by white and black clergy, white and black elected leaders — including our white mayor and his wife — and featuring our African-American sheriff as a speaker, it was all under the shadow of that Confederate monument.
I don’t think the irony was lost on anyone.
• • •
When I was young I was told that the soldier on top of the monument was facing west because the invading Union Troops were coming from Atlanta on their March to the Sea.
If the monument were to be moved to The Confederate Cemetery here in Covington, the man atop could stand guard over the Confederate Dead.
The most logical direction for him to face would be west. From a car, you would see the front of the statue upon approach.
That would be a fitting spot.
• • •
More and Perfect
“More” is an adjective of action. Think of a child saying, “More!” When the word is uttered, something needs to happen.
“Perfect” is a word without the need of emphasis. Once something is perfect it cannot be improved.
“More perfect…” When those two words magically meet together in the Preamble of the United States Constitution, something astonishing happens. “More perfect” — made poetic by the deliciously redundant and incorrect grammar — indicates the fanciful, almost childlike understanding of how the Constitution is to live, and how our nation is to evolve. Gouverneur Morris, the founding father who penned those words (and one who was an ardent opponent of slavery) is beseeching us to grow in wisdom as our Republic forges on. To continue to be “a more perfect Union.”
So, locally speaking, to remove a monument from the center of town, a monument that proclaims to almost half our citizens that they are “subordinate to the superior race” would help our town and county to be even more perfect.
Or as my sister Squiffy would say, make it more better.