In ’16, a debate over a Confederate monument roiled North Carolina. Not 2016; 1916.
Fights over removing Confederate memorials are breaking out across North Carolina and the South these days. Those disputes flared up again in Virginia last week after the governor and attorney general both admitted to wearing blackface in the 1980s. Blackface was a tool of white oppression, former FBI Director James Comey argued in a Washington Post op-ed, and the state’s Confederate monuments are “gigantic bronze embodiments of that same racism.”
As William Faulkner said in Requiem for a Nun, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Think today’s battles over Silent Sam and other Confederate monuments are tense? Go back to 1916, when a dispute over a proposed monument in Shelby made it first to the pages of the Charlotte Observer and then to the New York Times. It’s a tale that suggests how far we’ve come.
Here’s what happened:
Shelby’s Thomas Dixon Jr. sought to erect a statue of his uncle, Col. Leroy McAfee, on the courthouse square in Shelby. Dixon had written The Clansman in 1905, an influential, virulently racist novel whose main character was based on McAfee.
McAfee had organized the Ku Klux Klan in Cleveland County and Dixon wanted him adorned in a KKK robe in the statue.
The Charlotte Observer objected, and it spelled out why in a Sept. 19, 1916 editorial. A Klan robe would be grotesque, it said, and would condone racist actions that are “little understood by people other than our own and never will be.”
“The erection of a statue of the class proposed would impose upon the people of this and succeeding generations the duty of perpetual explanation and defense, a duty that might become irksome with the passing of the years and that might in the end be repudiated,” the Observer said.
A better idea, the paper said, was to depict McAfee in his Confederate soldier uniform. That “would prove an adornment … of unquestioned acceptance.” By memorializing him as a Confederate officer “for all ages there would be none to give his name other than acclaim.”
The (Montgomery) Advertiser called the Observer’s position “ridiculous” and argued McAfee should be remembered for his prominence in the KKK. The New York Times, it’s odd to say today, agreed.
The Observer, sadly, had no problem with Dixon’s plan to honor an unrepentant white supremacist. The writer was merely cognizant of how the KKK robe might look to later generations. That’s something, at least, that the Observer was willing to draw that line and anticipated how poorly such a monument would stand the test of time.
But it did not fully grapple with the pain Confederate memorials inflicted on generations of blacks. In that regard, the Observer writer is akin to the Virginia politicians who wore blackface in the 1980s. Today, the error of each is obvious. Back then, with both 1916 statues and 1984 yearbooks, the insensitivity was discernible, if one just stopped to think about it hard enough.