Being an old, white, gay guy, I think on days such as the federal holiday officially designated “Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.” my job is not to try to address issues of racial inequality with my own words, but rather to amplify the voices of people of color. Their lived experience makes anything they have to say on the topic much more relevant than anything I could say.
So today, let me suggest you take a look at Don Lemon’s “An MLK Day challenge to the news media.” I’ll quote a chunk of it here:
“So, on the day we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King and his unapologetic truth-to-power approach, let me speak candidly and directly to the people who actively read Playbook — lawmakers and the people they employ, journalists and the people who employ us, and other influentials. It’s what I like to call: WKWW, “What King Would Want.”
This new administration was elected to represent all Americans, obviously. But let’s be honest about the people who put Joe Biden and Kamala Harris over the finish line: They were and are Black, brown and Asian, with Black women leading the way, like pacers in a marathon. It is high time we (because I am included in these groups) not only have a seat at the table, but lead the discussion and make some of the decisions.
When our Latino brother and sister journalists wondered aloud and privately in newsrooms why we were giving candidate Donald Trump so much oxygen when he started by calling Mexicans rapists, did we listen to them or did we brush it off as an inability to be objective?
When Black journalists in newsrooms all over America questioned Trump’s history of racism, from housing to birtherism and more, did you stand up for us or keep quiet? Or did you journalistically appropriate us once we provided cover for you and your organization to finally speak or write the words, “The President of the United States is racist”?”
—CNN anchor Don Lemon, writing for Politico‘s Playbook
It’s really good. Read the whole article here.
Meanwhile, we shouldn’t let today pass without acknowledging another issue related to racism and other forms of hate: 44 Trans People Killed in 2020, Marking Worst Year on Record for Transphobic Violence.
Trump Lied for Five Uninterrupted Minutes About Mail-in Voting During Virus Briefing – After being teed-up by a question from the president’s favorite propaganda network, Trump gave an incoherent, lie-filled answer that seemingly went on for days.
Black Lives Matter movement sparks ‘collective awakening’ on marijuana policies – As racial justice protests swept the nation in June and July, some states and cities changed their cannabis regulations.
This isn’t what I thought I’d be writing about today, but here we are! I missed this piece of local news over the weekend: Confederate memorial toppled at Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery in Capitol Hill. The first time I wrote about Confederate monuments and why I thought most of them should be torn down was in 2017 (a post which I republished recently with a little bit of additional commentary). In that post I talked about one of those monuments here in my local community:
Washington territory was never a part of the Confederacy, and the few inhabitants of the state who served in the [civil] war did so as part of the Union Army and Navy. A local family, some years after the war, donated land in what would one day become the Capitol Hill neighborhood to the Grand Army of the Republic (which was an organization made up mostly of Union side Civil War Veterans) for a cemetery for Union soldiers. And that’s who was buried there. But decades later, during one of those surges of monument building, the Daughters of the Confederacy paid to have a monument to soldiers of the Confederacy erected in the cemetery. There are no Confederate soldiers buried there. Not one. And there are no soldiers’ names engraved on the massive monument. But there it is, erected in a cemetery full of Union soldiers, a monument to the so-called noble cause of the Confederacy.
I have since learned that some of facts in the above paragraph are an over simplification. Some of the land in the cemetery was donated to the Grand Army of the Republic, and at least 11 Union veterans are buried there. But the cemetery holds a bunch of other people (included actor Bruce Lee). But one fact that is still not in dispute: there are no Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.
The Confederate Monument was erected near the graves of the 11 Union soldiers, though. It makes as much sense to have a Confederate monument in that cemetery as it would to erect a monument to the army of Nazi Germany in a military cemetery full of U.S. World War II veterans.
Each time that organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy have gone on these binges of raising money for monuments and then bullying local governments into letting them be erected, has been a time where racist groups have felt a need to terrorize black people. The purpose of those monuments is not to teach history. They are meant as both propaganda and a threat.
A local news blog I read all the time posted a story today which only partially answers the question it poses in its headline: Wait, Why the Hell Does Seattle Have a Confederate Monument?
Yes, the Daughters of the Confederacy got the monument placed in the cemetery, in part by not just paying for the monument’s construction, but by making a donation to the non-profit that owns and manages the cemetery. A non-profit which has, by the way, ofter struggled with raising enough funds to adequately maintain the grounds. I think it is very interesting to note that no one at the non-profit wants to talk publicly about the monument.
In response to the news of this toppled monument, I’ve seen a couple people on social media try to put forward a “what-about-ism” argument because there is another monument in the cemetery which honors people who aren’t buried there. This is the Nisei War Memorial Monument, which was originally raised to honor 47 local Japanese Americans who served and died in World War II. In many cases the bodies were never returned to the U.S. I haven’t found a list of how many of those soldiers whose bodies were returned wound up in this cemetery, but apparently more than one did. Additionally, local Japanese American soldiers who served in the U.S. military and were killed in action in subsequent wars have had their names added to the monument
There is a very big difference between a memorial that lists actual names of local people who died in a war (at least a couple of whom are buried in the same cemetery), and one that lists no local names (and for that matter, no names at all!).
The local Japanese American community has been an important part of the history of Seattle and the surrounding area for about 140 years. The Confederacy—which barely existed for five years!—has absolutely no connection to Seattle. There is no good reason for a Confederate monument to be here, only a lot of bad reasons.
But it is still Pride Day, even if we’re all social distancing and meeting virtually. It’s a day to commemorate the time that a bunch of queers got fed up with police brutality and decided to fight back.It was the night that Marsha P. Johnson hurled a shot glass at a cop when they began their usual routine of lining up everyone in the gay bar, then singling out all the trans and gender-non-conforming people to arrest. Marsha wasn’t the only trans person of color to fight back that night, and she wasn’t the only one to keep fighting for queer rights, helping to found several of the organizations who took the fight to both the streets and the halls of government. When you hoist that rainbow flag, remember to thank those trans women of color who started it all.
Pride Day Links:
Every year Joe Jervis at Joe.My.God.com reposted the complete text of the very condescending story that the New York Daily News ran shortly after the original Stonewall uprising. I think it’s good to remember how people saw (and many still do) our community and concerns: LGBTQ History: “The Foot Wore A Spiked Heel”.
President Barack Obama Celebrates LGBTQ+ Equality (Clip) | Logo TV:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
Black Trans Lives Matter | Full Frontal on TBS:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
The Kinsey Sicks: The Sound of Sirens (Simon & Garfunkel Parody):
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
Show Me Your Pride – By Miss Coco Peru – OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
This Is Me | Boston Gay Men’s Chorus:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
Studying history means actually studying it—not looking at statues that were put up for non-historical reasons with misleading if not outright false plaques on their bases. When we remove symbols of racism, colonialism, and genocide, we aren’t erasing history, we are removing propaganda. As I tried to explain when I posted the following on August 22, 2017:
I wasn’t born in the South, but because of economic factors too complicated to go into at this juncture, the small town in Colorado where I was born was inhabited almost completely by recently transplanted southerners. All of my grandparents had been born in former Confederate states, as had most of the teachers at the public school, and the parents and/or grandparents of 95+ percent of my classmates. And even though my father’s job had us moving around to other parts of the central Rockies through most of grade school, because our family attended Southern Baptists churches, I continued to be exposed to certain myths about the Civil War that descendants of Confederate families tell themselves. I was taught that slavery wasn’t the primary issue of the war, for one. I was taught that most soldiers on the Confederate side had been involved for economic reasons, and certainly not because they believed that whites were superior to blacks, for another. And I was taught that just because the Southern Baptist church and many other institutions still advocated for the segregation of that races, that it wasn’t because they still believed that one race was superior to the other.
Each of those statements was a lie.
I was a teen-ager in the 70s when the Southern Baptist Convention finally endorsed desegregation of its churches. And it was as a teen that I learned most of what I’d been taught about the history of our denomination and the Civil War was untrue.
Historically, every state that seceded to form the Confederacy (not just Mississippi a portion of whose declaration is pictured above), explicitly listed either slavery or the superiority of the white race (and some mentioned both), as their reasons for seceding. The infamous cornerstone speech delivered by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens explained that the foundation of the new Confederate government was “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.”
It can’t be any clearer than that: the primary mission of the Confederacy was the perpetuation of slavery of black people and the entrenchment (nay, glorification) of white supremacy. And Confederate soldiers did not volunteer, fight, and die by the thousands because of some need to preserve the mythical idyllic pastoral culture of the Southern plantation—most of them were too poor to own plantations, for one thing! No, the typical Confederate grunt believed that if slaves were freed, working class whites would surely lose their livelihoods. The collective self-esteem of the white working class was shored up by the explicit statement that at least they weren’t slaves, so while they might have worked hard in exchange for less than their fair share of societal prosperity, at least they were better off than those black folks! The abolition of slavery was then perceived as an existential threat to the white working class. Of course they were willing to take up arms to protect slavery!
In the immediate aftermath of the war, symbols of the Confederacy weren’t displayed publicly. There were memorials erected in a few places to those who died in one battle or another, and certainly individual tombstones were occasionally emblazoned with Confederate symbols, but there wasn’t a stampede to erect statues to the leaders of the Confederacy afterward. For one thing, there wasn’t a lot of pride in having been on the losing side.
The first big rush of Confederate monuments was years after the war ended as Reconstruction officially ended and Federal troops were withdrawn in 1877. Across the former Confederacy, state legislatures started enacting Jim Crow laws, designed to make it difficult or nearly impossible for black people to exercise their right to vote and to enforce segregation of the races. And statues and monuments went up all over the South. The plaques usually talked about the bravery of the person depicted, but there were also language about the nobility of the cause for which they fought. Blacks living in those states, most of whom were former slaves, knew exactly what that cause had been, and the message the statues and monuments was clearly: “white people are in charge again, and don’t you forget it!”
Most of the Confederate monuments were put up in the 1910s and 1920s, coinciding with an increase in activity of the KKK and similar organizations terrorizing blacks. And the next big surge was in the 50s and 60s when civil rights organizations began having successes against some of the Jim Crow laws. The purpose of those monuments was not to honor the culture of the South; the message was still “stay in your place, black people, or else!” A great example of this resides not many miles from my home. Washington territory was never a part of the Confederacy, and the few inhabitants of the state who served in the war did so as part of the Union Army and Navy. A local family, some years after the war, donated land in what would one day become the Capitol Hill neighborhood to the Grand Army of the Republic (which was an organization made up mostly of Union side Civil War Veterans) for a cemetery for Union soldiers. And that’s who was buried there. But decades later, during one of those surges of monument building, the Daughters of the Confederacy paid to have a monument to soldiers of the Confederacy erected in the cemetery.
There are no Confederate soldiers buried there. Not one.
And there are no soldiers’ names engraved on the massive monument. But there it is, erected in a cemetery full of Union soldiers—a monument to the so-called noble cause of the Confederacy.
Now that some communities are rethinking these monuments—many of them extremely cheap bronze statues erected during times of civil rights tensions—other people are claiming taking them down is erasing history. No, taking down these post-dated monuments in public parks and so forth isn’t erasing history, it’s erasing anti-historical propaganda. The other argument that is put forward in defense of the monuments is that “both sides deserve to be heard.” That’s BS in this case, because there aren’t two sides to racism. There aren’t two sides to bigotry. There aren’t two sides to genocide. White supremacy is not a legitimate side to any argument.
When we defeated Hitler’s armies, we didn’t turn around and erect monuments to the government that murdered millions of people in concentration camps. We destroyed their symbols. When we liberated Iraq, we tore down the statues of Saddam Hussein, we didn’t enshrine his image in an attempt to give both sides equal time. Those few Confederate monuments that list off names of people who died are fine (even if a lot of them have cringeworthy language about the cause they were fighting for). Cemeteries where actual Confederate veterans are buried of course can have symbols of the Confederacy on the tombstones and the like. But the other monuments, the ones erected years later? They don’t belong in the public square.
They belong in the dustbin of history.