Color Us Connected Discusses Confederate Monuments

“Color Us Connected Discusses Confederate Monuments” in this edition of our co-blog, which is also published in Foster’s Daily Democrat newspaper and The Tuskegee News.

Karin Hopkins and Amy Miller, Co-authors of Color Us Connected

This is a blog by two women, one African American from Tuskegee and one white from South Berwick, Maine.

The blog was born out of the sister city relationship begun by their two communities in 2017. 

By Karin Hopkins

When I think about Confederate monuments, I reflect on the Confederate soldiers who turned on their own country, which makes them traitors. These same men were defeated, which also makes them losers. If you want to honor traitors and losers, that’s fine with me. It’s freedom of expression.

The flip side of this issue could be flag burning, which courts said was allowed under guess what—freedom of expression. Some people had a fit over this disrespect while others took a victory lap because the law was on their side. Shouldn’t freedom of expression apply to everybody the same way? Opponents of flag burning were forced to live with desecration of something they consider to be sacred. Now a different crowd is upset because confederate monuments honor something they despise. If flag burning is protected, so are Confederate monuments.

Just because somebody’s feelings get hurt is not sufficient reason to erode a right. Tampering with rights is a slippery slope. Today it’s “their” statues coming down. With that precedent set, next time it will be my heroes on the chopping block.

Also sticking the statues in museums and other hidden venues, ensures they will only be seen by the home team. Out of sight…out of mind. This is a recipe for revisionist history. Bad stuff happened in this country and I firmly believe we should not sweep it under the rug nor hide the monuments that were erected to applaud the atrocities.

However, I would rather see the Confederate monuments juxtaposed to new artistic expressions that honor a fuller picture of American history.

That’s basically what happened in Jefferson County. In the 1930’s, an artist painted murals for display in the courthouse lobby that glorify slavery and Jim Crow oppression. In later years, those images were like a kick in the gut for many Birmingham citizens who were foot soldiers in the Civil Rights Movement.

Located within Jefferson County, the City of Birmingham was the site of many acts of racially motivated violence, including the 1963 murder of four little girls by the Ku Klux Klan. This incident changed our country in profound ways. So, what should be done with that racist artwork in the county courthouse?

Well, instead of taking the murals down, new artwork was commissioned that honors the diversity in today’s Jefferson County family. Tuskegee-based artist, Dr. Ronald McDowell created a masterful painting that presents the current reality through myriad images including two blindfolded women, black and white, signifying that Lady Justice (ideally) is not influenced by wealth, power or ethnicity. McDowell named his mural, “Moving Forward – Justice is Blind.”

Nothing can erase the painful past and I believe the monuments should stay as reminders of the price we have paid to become who we are.

By Amy Miller

A mural called “Justice Is Blind”was unveiled in the Jefferson County, Ala., courthouse last month. Its title seems to me a hopeful nod to the future.

The mural, which sits alongside two murals illustrating a less hopeful past, was done by artist Ronald McDowell, a professor at Tuskegee University who I had the good fortune to meet briefly when I was in Tuskegee. His beautiful and renowned work includes numerous portraits of celebrities and civil rights heroes.

McDowell’s mural in Birmingham includes a black and white Lady Justice and bald eagles. It also includes black and white judges, an American flag, the Jefferson County logo, and the exterior of the courthouse. It was created as an answer to cries that the murals already there – one of enslaved people picking cotton and another of black people laboring shirtless in the mills –  should be removed as they represent the ugly Jim Crow past.

Karin and I talked about the mural for a few minutes before I began writing. Karin, who helped publicize the unveiling, told me she believes this and monuments to Confederate leaders should indeed stay, that we should not erase our history, or pretend it did not exist.

If the residents of Jefferson County are satisfied with this compromise, I stand with them. But Karin’s view that even Confederate statues should remain in town squares stopped me in my tracks. We realized we may have found our first issue for respectful disagreement. Although I am not from the South and do not carry the history of being enslaved in my DNA, I offer these thoughts.

I believe monuments put up to commemorate heroes who fought on the wrong side of history, in fact of morality, should not occupy revered spots in our town square. I fall in line with those who say keep those faux heroes in our history books, our museums and our consciences, not in our spots of honor.

As New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in speaking to his decision to remove four Confederate statues last year: “These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

Although we predictably do not have statues to Confederate heroes in Maine, we do have a sprinkling of Confederate flags, sometimes flown by people who have never, ever lived down south. This is clearly a nod to something other than pride in their culture. These flag-bearers have a right to their symbols, but they should not be held in public spaces and in fact have been banned from vehicles in our school parking lots.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice that opened in Montgomery, Ala. last month insists we remember the thousands of documented lynchings of innocent black men and women that took place for decades upon decades after slavery was outlawed. This is first memorial in the country dedicated to the stories of lynching victims. (https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/lynching-memorial-montgomery-alabama/index.html)

Perhaps one day we will have enough reminders of our past disgraces to balance out the glorifying role of Confederate monuments. But in the meantime, we have a long way to go before we can balance out the many tributes. No more children need grow up in a town where the heroes of the Confederacy are the main salutations to the past on Main Street.

Karin and Amy can be contacted at colorusconnected@gmail.com