Reminders of an immoral past

We all sometimes need to be reminded that opinions are merely personal views that each of us has formed. Too often those opinions are not based on facts or knowledge, but are developed by some combination of bias, habit, rumor, and tradition. Your opinion might be your personal truth, but that doesn’t mean it is my truth. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that it is not.

That is one of the biggest problems in communicating with other people. What many people see as the absolute truth in some situations feels like the complete opposite to others, particularly about controversial issues related to politics. I try to be respectful to those who hold different opinions, although that respect is often not returned. This has been especially true recently.

One of the most controversial issues that has re-emerged is that of public display of symbols of the Confederacy from the Civil War. Few things generate as much regional passion as the so-called War of Northern Aggression. It is definitely one of those topics that is best to avoid at a class or family reunion in the South.

There are people who claim that the cause of the Civil War was not slavery, but “state’s rights.” Each state that joined the Confederacy made a written declaration of their grievances against the U.S. Government to justify their decision to secede. The complaints varied among the 11 states, but the one complaint they all had in common was the U.S. government’s attempts to limit and ultimately ban slavery. To say that slavery was not the dominant cause of the war is disingenuous at best.

My own southern heritage goes back many generations and includes my Scottish immigrant great-grandfather who was the captain of a Confederate regiment. He was captured and held as a prisoner until the war ended. After the war he married my much younger great-grandmother, the oldest daughter of a landowner who had owned slaves and was financially destitute after the war. My great-grandfather paid the debt to keep the land from being sold.

My family takes great pride in our family farm, as it is one of the oldest in the state to remain in the hands of descendants of the first English owners. But we take no pride in knowing that the land was cleared and cultivated by enslaved people who were treated more like animals than human beings. Nor do I take pride in the fact that my great-grandfather fought to maintain slavery under a banner named “The White Man’s Flag” by its designer William Thompson.

My great-grandfather’s service in the war is appropriately noted on his tombstone. I believe that Civil War memorials and relics should be preserved in their historical context in places such as museums, cemeteries, and battlefields. I do not favor displaying statues of Civil War leaders in places of honor such as city centers or parks. Those men took up arms to try to destroy the USA rather than give up their right to enslave other human beings, and I see no honor in that.

I don’t know how many of our fellow Americans are descendants of slaves, but it is at least in the tens of millions. We all know the realities of slavery, that these people were violently kidnapped from their own homes, separated from their lands and families, beaten and chained, and brought to America for a life of servitude and mistreatment. Physical abuses such as rape and even murder were common at the hands of their captors.

Their emancipation was granted only after a Civil War that devastated and nearly destroyed our country. Now, more than 150 years later, millions of Americans every day see statues erected to honor the very men who not only participated in the abuse of their ancestors, but took up arms to destroy the USA rather than agree to end slavery. Not only see these memorials, but see them in publicly owned places of honor that they themselves help financially support with their tax money.

Relics such as the Confederate flag and statues of leaders of the Confederacy are hurtful reminders of slavery to many people, descendants of both slaves and of slave owners. Are these symbols of our immoral and violent past worth more to us than the pain and suffering they cause our fellow countrymen? And if they are more important, what does that say about us as people?

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Patsy Sheppard, a St. Pauls resident, is a retired educator and active locally in the Democratic Party.

Patsy Sheppard, a St. Pauls resident, is a retired educator and active locally in the Democratic Party.