In a small NC town, a battle for racial justice confronts bloody past and uncertain future
One afternoon in mid-July, hundreds of people gathered around a stage in front of the historic gray stone courthouse at the heart of the small town of Graham, North Carolina. They were listening to a song of protest.
“We don’t want to die,” a local musician sang out to the diverse crowd.
The group wanted the removal of a marble statue of a Confederate soldier that had stood watch over the town square since white citizens of Alamance County erected it in 1914. But protesters in this central North Carolina county seat were seeking much more.
“We don’t want to die no more,” the man belted out again.
Across the street from the monument, dozens of people, most of them white, lined the manicured edge of a small park. They waved Confederate battle flags. Some wore T-shirts purchased at a local motorcycle shop that sells patches with Nazi symbols and KKK “life member” insignia. The shirts bore a picture of the town’s Johnny Reb statue with the words “I ain’t coming down.”
A brass bell that once tolled from the roof of the original courthouse, built before the Civil War and demolished in the 1920s, sat at the center of the park. A man in the crowd had seized control of it, heaving its clapper over and over against the bell’s lip to drown out the protesters.
The singer and his audience did their best to ignore the noise. “We don’t want to die no more,” he sang out again. The bell ringer looked around. Nobody, including nearby law enforcement officers, tried to stop him. He picked up his pace. The singer continued, “That’s why we on a riot.”
Those are some of the views Republicans endorse by uncritically embracing and supporting President Trump. He is leading his party down a sewer of unabashed racism and willful ignorance, and all who follow him — and I mean all — deserve to feel the mighty wrath of voters in November.
I’m talking to you, Sen.
- Susan Collins of Maine. And you, Sen.
- Cory Gardner of Colorado. And you, Sens.
- Thom Tillis of North Carolina,
- Martha McSally of Arizona,
- Joni Ernst of Iowa,
- Steve Daines of Montana,
- Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and
- John Cornyn of Texas.
And while those of you in deep-red states whose reelection ordinarily would be seen as a mere formality may not see the giant millstones you’ve hung around your necks as a real risk, think again. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina and even Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, you should look at the numbers and realize you are putting your Senate seats — and the slim GOP majority — in dire jeopardy.
You can run and hide from reporters asking you about Trump’s latest statements or tweets. You can pretend not to hear shouted questions as you hurry down Capitol hallways. You can take out your cellphones and feign being engrossed in a terribly important call. Ultimately, you’re going to have to answer to voters — and in the meantime you have decided to let Trump speak for you. Best of luck with that.
It is not really surprising that Trump, with his poll numbers falling and his reelection in serious jeopardy, would decide to use race and public health as wedge issues to inflame his loyal base. That’s all he knows how to do.
Most politicians would see plunging poll numbers as a warning to try a different approach; Trump takes them as a sign to do more of the same — more race-baiting, more authoritarian “law and order” posturing, more see-no-evil denial of a raging pandemic that has cost more than 120,000 American lives.
Racism is a feature of the Trump shtick, not a bug. He sees the nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd as an opportunity not for healing and reform, but to stir anger and resentment among his overwhelmingly white voting base. Trump wants no part of the reckoning with history the country seems to crave.
This week, city officials in Charleston, S.C. — the place where the Civil War began — took down a statue of John C. Calhoun, a leading 19th-century politician and fierce defender of slavery, from its 115-foot column in Marion Square and hauled it away to a warehouse. Also this week, Trump reportedly demanded that the District’s monument to Confederate Gen. Albert Pike, toppled last week by protesters, be cleaned up and reinstalled exactly as it was.
Trump went to Arizona not just to falsely claim great progress on building his promised border wall, intended to keep out the “hombres,” but also to delight fervent young supporters by referring to covid-19 as “kung flu.” Weeks ago, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said that racist term was clearly offensive and unacceptable. But since Trump has made it into a red-meat applause line, Conway now apparently thinks it’s a perfectly legitimate way to identify the virus’s country of origin.
All the other Republicans who fail to speak up while Trump runs the most nakedly racist presidential campaign since George Wallace in 1968 shouldn’t kid themselves. Their silence amounts to agreement. Perhaps there’s enough white bitterness out there to carry the Republican Party to another narrow win. But that’s not what the polls say.
Trump’s antics are self-defeating. He’ll put on a racist show for a shrinking audience, but he won’t wear the masks that could allow the economic reopening he desperately wants. He may be able to avoid reality, but the Republican governors — including Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida — scrambling desperately to contain new outbreaks cannot.
It’s almost as though Trump is determined to destroy the Republican Party. Let’s give him his wish.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a proclamation declaring July 13 Nathan Bedford Forrest Day. Forrest was a Confederate general, slave trader and an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.A Tennessee law dating back to 1971 mandates that the governor must issue proclamations for six state holidays each year, including days for Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee, CBS Nashville affiliate WTVF reported.
According to the Tennessee code, the governor must declare January 19 as “Robert E. Lee Day”; February 12 as “Abraham Lincoln Day”; March 15 as “Andrew Jackson Day”; June 3 as “Memorial or Confederate Decoration Day”; July 13 as “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day”; and November 11, as “Veterans’ Day.”
“I signed the bill because the law requires that I do that and I haven’t looked at changing that law,” Lee said Thursday.
According to The Tennessean, Lee declined to say if he thought the state law should be changed — something Tennessee Democrats have been hoping would happen. Previous efforts by Democrats have failed.
“This a reminder of the painful and hurtful crimes that were committed against black people,” Rep. Vincent Dixie of Nashville told WTVF.
Dixie said he was previously unaware July 13 was Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee and criticized Lee’s decision to sign the proclamation.
“Now you’re signing a proclamation honoring the same people that fought to keep people that look like me, African Americans in slavery,” Dixie said.
There is a bust of Forrest in the state capitol and there is a highly-visible statue of him on Interstate 65. There have been calls to remove the bust. The statue, which is on private property, is frequently defaced.
“Looking back 150, 200 years ago, it was a way of life,” he says. “It may not have been right, but it was the way of life at the time.”
.. Our trip took us through Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama.
We found that the legacy of the Confederacy has become so embedded in daily life that it will take more than the removal of a statue here, or a plaque there, to address it. That it has become too easy to look past the atrocities that occurred on the serene plantations where you take prom pictures, or walks with your family amid stone sculptures and bright flowers.
.. In some cases, the structures are simply too massive to remove — take the 351-foot obelisk honoring Jefferson Davis in his birthplace of Fairview, Ky. In others, as in Alabama, a law has been established to prohibit the removal of Confederate monuments.
But in many instances, Confederate memorials are not physical. They are better understood as emotional, spiritual and familial connections.
.. Like many pro-Confederates in the South, Mr. Cotton plays down the role of slavery in the Civil War. He believes it had more to do with the North trying to control, and eventually invade, the South than anything else.
.. For Mr. Cotton and other Davis supporters, much of that legend was built on what Davis did before he became the president of the Confederacy. They see him as a heroic West Point graduate who served in the Mexican-American War, and as a United States senator representing Mississippi.
What they don’t highlight are his beliefs about slavery. Davis thought that the institution should be expanded and that black people were an inferior race. These white supremacist beliefs continued to shape American society long after the Civil War was over and efforts to integrate freed slaves gave way to an era of racially motivated killings.
.. “It’s a reminder of hatred and all the wrongdoings that’s been done against African-Americans,” Ms. Jones says of Confederate symbols. “I do believe they have a right to their history, but not at the sake of ours. If you’re going to write part of the story, write the whole story. Tell what you did.”
.. But ignoring the misdeeds of Confederate leaders — seeing Jefferson Davis the statesman without seeing Jefferson Davis the slave owner — is not a luxury available to black people.