I was raised in 1950s Louisiana — pre-civil rights and BLM. Dad was a preacher, so I was steeped in the Biblical grounds of slavery and segregation — reinforced by Confederate monuments, Civil War stories and the “Myth of the Lost Cause.” They became integral to my personal history.
Times change, and with great difficulty, I overcame odious prejudices. But I can’t expunge my memories and personal history.
The South instills a greater sense of history than other regions — the Civil War was largely fought there. Secondhand stories of the “War Between The States” abounded. Battlefields and statues pervaded. I recall 1957 when the last “Johnny Reb” died, aged 107.
Nostalgia is unavoidable. I have personal connections with ”Gone With The Wind” imagery. I remember family excursions to museums and battlefields and, yes, reflecting on statues.
I rode the New Orleans trolleys to first grade and, afterward, to the French Quarter where Mom worked. The final stop was Robert E. Lee’s statue. I never associated it with slavery or the Civil War. I fondly remember it as where I first achieved independence by riding the trolley alone. An equally prominent statue of Martin Luther King Jr. would not have lessened those memories.
My racism was tempered at a young age.
Mrs. Fick, my teacher in a segregated school, overhead a classmate using the n-word. She warned us to never say it, but use “Negro” instead. I didn’t abjure it — everybody used it — but I said it less.
Activists Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were later murdered by cops during a Mississippi voter drive. During his fatal beating — just before death — Schwerner murmured, “I understand how you feel...” to his killers.
Schwerner foresaw a fundamental flaw of sensitivity training, which overlooks personal histories intertwined with prejudice. Schwerner, during his final moments, understood.
Such misunderstandings condemn Southerners overcoming prejudice. Mark Twain’s classic “Huckleberry Finn” — sympathetic to Black people — was banned from libraries because it contained “N***** Jim.” Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” condemned racism, describing lawyer Atticus Finch’s defense of an alleged Black rapist. Nonetheless, she’s condemned because her sequel, “Go Set A Watchman,” portrayed Atticus struggling to accept the 1960s civil rights movement.
Racism is nuanced and vague. A bigot’s heart can only be changed by understanding personal history — as Schwerner showed 60 years ago. Anything less is itself bigotry.
Abraham Lincoln was labeled racist, despite his Emancipation Proclamation, for musing he’d fight to preserve the Union, that abolition was secondary. His statue, with a kneeling slave in chains, was deemed offensive, despite its symbolism of Lincoln’s liberating Blacks from slavery (statues are always oversimplifications).
Confederate General James Longstreet is often rated a better commander than Robert E. Lee. But he embraced Reconstruction, integrating Blacks into Southern life. At the Battle of Liberty Place in postwar Louisiana, he led Black troops. He was shot by members of the anti-Reconstruction White League. Should his statue at Gettysburg be destroyed?
Such iconoclasm continues. America’s most revered figures were scarred by racism. Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt — even Booker T. Washington. Booker T., a Black and freed slave, was lauded as founder of America’s first Black university, Tuskegee Institute. But he was derided for necessary accommodations with Jim Crow South.
I’m not alone in my struggle. Scholars note that racism is internalized stereotypes and prejudices spanning society. Discouragingly, Professor Angela Bell states that if you ask yourself if you’re a racist — you are. But if you’re not asking yourself — you are.
We must understand each other’s most odious histories.
“Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”
Richard Green is a former IRS agent.