Oppenheim: Standing For Something

Aug 23, 2017

In 1998, I was working in Atlanta – and took a trip to Stone Mountain, a confederate monument about a half-hour east of the city.

Stone Mountain is an interesting place. Once a gathering site for the Ku Klux Klan, it has a gigantic relief on the side of the mountain of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The carving is larger than Mt. Rushmore.

For some time, Stone Mountain has been tourist-friendly, more a mixture of Dixie and Disney. And at night, there’s a laser light show that animates the confederate heroes. With music pumping and a crowd cheering, off go Davis, Lee and Jackson galloping on horses. And the confederacy lives on.

Until the moment I saw this, I didn’t really understand how, in the South and other parts of America, the past was so present. In fact, during the show, a young boy turned to his Dad and asked: “Don’t they know they lost?”

The Southern Poverty Law Center reports more than 700 confederate monuments in the U.S. - and more than 100 public schools are named after confederate leaders. And if you think of the intense reaction - in Vermont - to dropping the name “Rebel” for South Burlington High School’s mascot, imagine how hard it would be to change similar school names in the South – never mind monuments.

The truth is, much of this memorializing was less about honoring heritage and than opposing the civil rights movement. And we’d be foolish to think removing them would be easy.

There are at least 10 confederate statues in the U.S. Capitol – and even democrats are divided about removing them, some worried about alienating voters. And that’s a valid concern. But Congressman Welch is voicing a sentiment that, over time, has a chance for gaining broader acceptance.

In 2015, few people thought South Carolina would ever remove the confederate flag from the grounds of its statehouse. But after an extremist killed 9 people in a North Charleston church, officials did just that, recognizing what’s a symbol of heritage to one – is a symbol of hate to another.

Statues, names, and flags do, after all, stand for something.

It will take effort and time to educate a wider public, but to too many people, too many of those symbols stand for something unbearable.