Hi! I’m Dr. Bryan Register, and I’m a leader in the Texas Reconstruction Project (and in a more local group, De-Confederate Austin). Our task is to educate the public about the history of white supremacy in Texas, especially having to do with slavery and the Civil War, and to remove from public land every device by which white supremacist actions, individuals, or institutions are honored. We aim to remove every Confederate monument and rename every street, school, park, or other facility named for Confederate figures. Our means are educational and persuasive. We respect the frustration behind do-it-yourself monument removal, but we don’t believe that that is the best path.
Everybody knows that if you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it. (We know that because George Santayana, a mid-century antifascist philosopher, said it. Almost nobody who repeats the remark has ever heard of Santayana, and there are no monuments to him, and still, we remember this saying of his.)
What Santayana didn’t consider is that only history’s victims are doomed to repeat it. History’s winners have the power to repeat their earlier brutality if their victims can’t remember what happened last time around. Not everybody wants for us to know our past.
Now here is some repetition. In 1850, a southern preacher named Benjamin Thornwell expressed the common sense of southern white people when he claimed in a sermon that Abolitionism was a communist movement. This judgment was widespread and false. In the 1960s, J. Edgar Hoover expressed the common sense of white Americans when he claimed that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Communist. This judgment was widespread and false. Now in 2020, if you claim that Black lives matter, you’re immediately excoriated for belonging to “a Marxist organization”. This judgment is widespread and false. But what’s important is the pattern. The people who say that Black lives’ mattering is a commie plot are the same people who jailed and assassinated Dr. King and lynched Abolitionists before that, and at every phase, the same lie has been their justification. They haven’t updated the lie — they don’t need to. We’ve forgotten our history, so they’re empowered to repeat it.
Here is some repetition. In 1860, dozens of towns in north Texas were burned down by a massive Abolitionist plot assisted by scores of previously contented slaves riled up by Yankee agitators and incendiarists. The crisis was so severe that it served as a warning to the white south: to remain within the United States was to be exposed to constant threat of terrorism from violent Abolitonists — except that none of that happened. There were a couple of fires caused by badly-stored matches and the summer heat. Still, this fictional dastardly plot was a justification for the secession of the southern states. In the 1960s, it was generally understood by white America that Dr. King’s civil rights movement was a vast crime wave, incited by Communists, to destroy America. That was also not true, but it allowed the United States to turn on a dime from Jim Crow to the “War on Crime”, to prevent meaningful school integration, and otherwise to maintain a more diffuse, more subtle form of white supremacy. And now in 2020, everyone “knows” that “antifa and BLM rioters” are “burning cities”. That isn’t true, either, but it’s being used to scare the American people into voting for white supremacist policies, such as the intensified militarization of police and violation of civil liberties, again. The same lie has been used time and again to justify the same kind of actions. They don’t need to update the lie. We’ve forgotten our history, so they’re empowered to repeat it.
How have we been gotten to forget our history? It’s a peculiar story about how standing actions are re-interpreted over time.
To honor someone is to hold them up as an archetype or model. To honor someone, one needs a means to do so. In the simplest case, that’s spoken words. It could be written words. It could be medals, trophies, and stories. Most importantly for us, it could be a monument. To erect a monument in honor of someone is to perform the act of honoring them for 1) as long as the monument stands and 2) the honorer exists and 3) the honored are, however vaguely or confusedly, remembered and relevant. Honoring someone is an action that can go on for a very long time. If the United Daughters of the Confederacy coaxes a county government in Texas to erect a monument to honor the Confederacy, then that county is honoring the Confederacy until the monument is no longer there or the county is no longer there.
Monuments are not historically informative. A monument is the means by which the honorer holds the honored up as an archetype or model. What the honored has done to deserve honor has to be filled in from other sources. One of those sources is the nature of the honorer. If the honorer is overtly white supremacist, then it’s fair to guess that the honored is honored for white supremacist actions. That’s how Confederate monuments were understood at the time of their erection. The reason to honor the Confederacy — rather than lament the tragedy of the Civil War — was that the Confederacy was white supremacist, and the honorers wanted to hold up an archetype or model of white supremacy for future generations.
However, if the honorer would not honor someone for white supremacist actions, then whatever the honored did to deserve honor cannot have been white supremacist. Now, to the ordinary white American, it seems like no county in Texas would, in 2020, begin or continue to honor someone for overt white supremacy. No county in Texas is going to erect a monument depicting George Wallace on the schoolhouse steps to honor him for his bold actions to preserve the Anglo-Saxon race. Thus, from the fact that a county in Texas, in 2020, honors the Confederacy, it seems like it follows that the Confederacy was not white supremacist.
What actually follows is that the county is white supremacist and the ordinary white American doesn’t know that. But due to this historically ignorant re-interpretation of the monuments due to wishful white forgetfulness, the monuments now conceal what they were erected to praise: the white supremacy of the Confederacy.
If you can’t tell that the Confederacy was white supremacist, then you can’t identify white supremacy in any context. The Confederacy was not subtle about it. It is simply impossible to read source documents from Confederate leaders, supporters, propagandists, politicians, and ordinary soldiers and not understand that the southern states seceded for the exclusive purpose of preserving and extending slavery. If you can’t see the white supremacy in the Confederacy, then contemporary white supremacy is absolutely invisible to you.
Having forgotten our history, we repeat it. We repeated slavery in Jim Crow; we’re repeating Jim Crow in unequitable access to healthy food, clean water, health care, and education; in unequal rates of arrest, brutality, indictment, verdict, penalty, and parole; in every way that a society is able to be divided and treat one of its divisions as nothing but recalcitrant tools and punching bags. Having forgotten that they called Abolitionists “incendiarist communists” and Dr. King’s movement “rioting Communists”, we’re disarmed when they call Black Lives Matter “looting Marxists”. The people who insist that removing the monuments will make us forget our history are overwhelmingly ignorant of that history — they don’t know that we are repeating it, partly due to their efforts to conceal it.