My Texas grandmother’s relatives fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. She remembered a time, as a kid, meeting an older second cousin who’d served as a water boy in the Texas Brigade. My grandfather fought in the trenches of France during World War I and family members of his had fought in the Maine Infantry of the Union Army.
My grandparents' occasional domestic disputes sometimes took on regional dimensions, becoming the family equivalent of the Battle of Gettysburg. My grandmother’s Texas drawl and blunt pronouncements usually proved more than a match for my grandfather’s ironic New England reserve.
But it was my southern grandmother who led me to news reports of her fellow southerner, Martin Luther King, and she told me about the racial discrimination she’d witnessed growing up in the south. She spoke proudly of her Texas newspaperman father who editorialized against racial segregation. And she regularly pointed out the role played by northerners in the buying, selling, and transporting of slaves.
“You won't pin that one on me, Mr. Hatch,” she’d say to my grandfather whenever regional politics erupted. “You Yankees were up to your neck in this whole atrocious practice of slavery and you know it.”
My grandfather didn’t have much of a comeback for that.
Until these recent eruptions of racialized violence and polarization, most people thought we were making progress toward better understandings of our complex and sometimes tangled and tragic history. Now it appears there’s still a great deal to be resolved before we can put our history of slavery and Jim Crow behind us - and move forward as one nation.
As a filmmaker I find it fascinating that while we’ve heard a lot about how Klansmen, neo-Nazi’s, and white supremacists rallied to oppose the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, we haven’t heard as much about how that particular Lee statue was erected in the early 1920s, during a revival of the Ku Klux Klan ignited by the DW Griffith film, “Birth of a Nation.”
Much has been said about respect for the historical record, but it was during that revival, that Klan members lobbied for Confederate memorials to be erected throughout the south as symbols of white supremacy. And as recently as the 1960s, still more Confederate statues were put up in defiance of the civil rights movement.
I wonder what my grandparents might have said about that.