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Should Confederate memorials be the next to go?

A Confederate monument at the Elmwood Cemetery in Charlotte.
A Confederate monument at the Elmwood Cemetery in Charlotte. OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Is there a difference between a Confederate flag and a Confederate memorial?

It’s a question officials in cities and counties across the South are asking themselves now, including in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, where manager Dena Diorio said Tuesday night that she’ll bring the issue of a small Confederate memorial on county property in front of the Board of Commissioners:

The question is part of a wave of self-examination across the South – set off, of course, by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley declaring Monday that the Confederate flag shouldn’t fly over the capitol of her state.

Mississippi officials are wondering if the Stars and Bars should be a part of their state flag. The governors of Virginia and Tennessee want the flag off their states’ license plates. So does N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory.

It’s more than a little shameful that it took the killing of nine black churchgoers, plus photos of their killer proudly holding that flag, plus the South Carolina governor finally saying enough, for the light to come on for other Southern states.

But now that political permission has been given, well, good.

Now, however, the wave of Confederate cleansing is threatening to collect things we might want to think harder about. In the rush to cleanse ourselves of our worst moments, how much history do we want to scrub?

In some cities and counties, that discussion could include high schools and highways that bear the name of Confederate heroes. In Kentucky, U.S. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that a Jefferson Davis statue should be moved to a museum.

That probably would work for the small memorial by Memorial Stadium. It also would work for another memorial that went up on the grounds of Charlotte’s old City Hall in 1977. That’s not nearly as practical, though, for the expansive Confederate monument located on city property at Elmwood Cemetery.

The city has no plans at the moment to remove that one, city spokesperson Sandy D’Elosua told me this morning. A decade ago, the city removed a Confederate flag that flew at Elmwood.

UPDATE, 2:45 p.m.: D’Elosua says that after more discussion, city officials have decided to review what to do, if anything, with the Confederate monument at Elmwood, then make a recommendation to Charlotte City Council.

Should the memorial come down? The easier answer would be yes. The memorial honors soldiers who fought for the Confederacy, which despite what some want to believe, went to war for slavery and white supremacy.

But there’s a difference between monuments and the flag. Confederate flags not only represent the Confederacy and its soldiers, but also the Ku Klux Klan and Dixiecrats of 1948 and all those who have since co-opted the flag for their own active message of hate.

Including Dylann Storm Roof.

That’s why the flag long ago needed to come down, and it’s why those who fly it or wear it need to be marginalized to the point that they think harder about what they’re really trying to say. That’s what’s happening now, especially with big retailers like Wal-Mart and Amazon taking Confederate flag items off their digital and store shelves.

Yes, some will still choose to display the flag, but soon it will mostly be where it belongs, in museums. That, essentially, is what Confederate monuments and statues are – artifacts that passively display our history and our mistakes. Government shouldn’t celebrate those mistakes, as it has done for so long with the Confederate flag. But it should be careful about erasing the evidence.

Peter St. Onge

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