Commentary: Tear down the relics of the Confederate past

By Janet Williams
The StatehouseFile.com  

I loved movies when I was a child, no doubt in part because when my dad didn’t want to see a film at our local theater my mom would take me.

That’s how I ended up in a darkened theater watching “The Cardinal” and wondering when those lovely red birds would finally make an appearance. (For those unfamiliar with this movie, it’s about a young man’s rise in the Catholic Church. This Lutheran kid missed it.)

Janet Williams, editor, TheStatehouseFile.com

That is also how I saw “Gone with the Wind” for the first time.

In the days before classic TV movie channels, the only way to watch some films, like “Gone with the Wind,” was at a revival or when the movie was re-released.

“Gone with the Wind” had left a deep and lasting impression on my mother, who saw the movie in its original release in 1939. To her, it was the most spectacular movie ever made.

So when the movie was re-released in the 1960s, my mom took me to see it at our local theater, The Oaks. To say I was excited to see this spectacle on film would be an understatement.

I was awed as the music for the famous theme swelled and the rich golden, red and orange hues of the opening credits sailed across the screen.

Rhett and Scarlett, what a love story. The beautiful plantation in the antebellum south where happy and contented slaves took care of every whim of the O’Hara family. Ah, what a beautiful and gallant age wiped out by a war with those northern aggressors.

I was dazzled.

I was also bedazzled by a Hollywood myth-making machine.

And bamboozled by an industry aiding and abetting the rewriting of Civil War history as a lost, glorious cause.

Today, that remains the image of the Civil War embedded in most of our collective understanding and why so many of us never thought twice about the statues erected in honor of the men who waged that war for the Confederacy.

That was one of the points stressed by writer and historian James Loewen in his book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me.” He debunks a lot of myths in that work, published two decades ago, but no chapter is more powerful than the one where he took on the way the Civil War and slavery were taught in school and the role of “Gone with the Wind” in building the myth.

Most of us who are not nor ever have been directly affected by the legacy of slavery have paid far too little attention to the message conveyed by the statues of Confederate generals in public spaces across the nation.

Our attitude has been that the war is long over and if people want a few statues to a lost cause, who are we to argue. Besides, those monuments are part of history, right?

Absolutely not.

Those monuments speak to the rewriting of American history, blanketing the real pain of slavery and its legacy of racism with a myth. I never realized just how many of those statues were erected decades after the war, not as a memorial but as a statement to communities of African Americans that you will never be equal nor will you ever be free.

What we saw in Charlottesville recently is what happens when the myth of the lost cause collides with the truth of slavery and lingering racism.

It’s time that we, as a nation, move on and send those myths to the dustbin of history.

Banish “Gone with the Wind” to the same old film vault where years ago we placed “Birth of a Nation” — you know, that film glorifying the Klan. Both are a products stunning workmanship but share a sanitized retelling of a vile history, interesting as examples of a genre of film, but with little other value.

As for those Confederate statues of generals and politicians who betrayed their country in defense of an ugly institution?

Tear them down. Tear every single one of them down and put them in the same vault with those discredited movies. And finally, let’s recognize them for what they are — symbols of a painful and disgraceful past.

Janet Williams is editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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2 Responses to Commentary: Tear down the relics of the Confederate past

  1. This is very nicely written. I agree, we’ve all been brainwashed about what it was like in the south. I grew up with those images and unfortunately younger, much younger people are being spoon fed the same load of crap. Like you, I just looked at them as statues, not the symbols they were implied to be. The men they glorify were honorable in most ways, but. they made a choice and they were wrong. The war was not entirely about slavery, states rights were also tied into the argument against slavery. In many ways, I feel we are still a nation divided, but there is always hope that we will continue to get better.