The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: What History Teaches

Charlottesville resistance an inspiration here and everywhere

By Michael King, August 18, 2017, News

Thanks in part to our increasingly fake president, we have not heard the last of the "alt-right" and its various incarnations, including the Ku Klux Klan (e.g., blowhard Trumpist David Duke), explicit neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, various heavily armed right-wing militias, and a host of other fringe white supremacist (and anti-Semitic) groups hoping to use their Charlottesville actions to "unite the right." In the wake of Trump's equivocations – blaming equally pro-fascist rioters and their opponents – these groups have been emboldened, and intend to flourish.

Whether they do depends in part on broad public resistance, and one growing evidence of that resistance is the movement to remove the monuments to Confederate "heroes" – primarily erected during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras as symbolic means of reinforcing white supremacy. It was the fate of one such monument, dedicated to Robert E. Lee, that was the excuse for the Nazis – shouting "Jews will not replace us!" etc. – to march on Charlottesville.

Last year, Austin ISD took the laudable step of renaming Lee Elementary School in honor of legendary photographer Russell Lee. Now City Council members plan to replace the street names of Robert E. Lee (near Barton Springs) and Jeff Davis (off Burnet). At Tuesday's work session, Council Member Ann Kitchen noted that such changes are necessary, but not enough: "There's so much more that we need to do as a city. I mean, renaming a road is a symbol. It's an important, critical symbol, but ... we can't just change the name of a road and say, 'Okay, we've fixed the problems in our community with regard to hatred and violence and racism.'"

Equally important, these changes must be accompanied by public discussion and education. Rather than an attempt at "erasing history," said CM Greg Casar: "There is a very deliberate anti-historical effort that's been underway since the end of the Civil War, to actually erase history and to rewrite history – as the Civil War not being about keeping people enslaved and over a million people dying in a war over slavery."

Historical Illiteracy

Nevertheless, we can expect to hear the usual nonsense about "states' rights" as the true cause of the Civil War, and about the putative virtues of Robert E. Lee. A glance at the 1861 Texas Declaration of Secession (like those of the other treasonous states), adamantly condemning abolition as its foundation, puts the lie to the first distortion. The declaration defends the "beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery," and denounces "the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law." (In passing, the Texas traitors also whine about federal failure to defend them against "Indian savages" and "Mexican banditti." Some things never change.)

Similarly, the portrayal of Lee as a heroic defender of traditional chivalric values is a retroactive fantasy manufactured in the 20th century, first to defend the maintenance of Jim Crow oppressions (including lynching) and then to oppose the Civil Rights Movement. As Adam Serwer wrote in The Atlantic, Lee was an enthusiastic and brutal slaveholder (although he did consider slavery unfairly hard on white people), and he fought a treasonous war to sustain the slave system. The myth of Lee's virtues is "too divorced from Lee's actual life to even be classed as fan fiction; it is simply historical illiteracy. White supremacy does not 'violate' Lee's 'most fundamental convictions.' White supremacy was one of Lee's most fundamental convictions." (See "The Myth of the Kindly General Lee," The Atlantic, June 4, 2017).

Remember Her Name

In short, removing the symbols honoring Confederate traitors is a natural and necessary step to "forming a more perfect Union" and to establishing greater justice, as well as an opportunity to educate the broader public about real U.S. history, not the gargoyle constructed by neo-fascists to justify the continuation of white privilege over other people. That such steps remain "controversial" after 150 years marks our national failure to honestly face our actual history, as well as our responsibility to defend those who suffered under slavery and war rather than celebrate those responsible for both. There are no longer statues in Germany celebrating the Nazi instigators of World War II and the purveyors of genocide – is that "erasing history"?

Yet this week our willfully ignorant president described as "fine people" those who marched on Charlottesville, in a torch-and-gun parade wholly intended to intimidate and terrorize those who oppose the spread of fascism and racism. One of them murdered a woman whose fault was to defend equality and peace. When the true history of the Charlottesville episode is written, Heather Heyer will be honored as its hero, and those who caused and then celebrated her death will be forgotten – except as specimens of the moral garbage they ­embody.

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