Update: You can watch the public debate in its entirety, including Karen Cooper’s public address in its entirety following the opening remarks and two speakers. It really is quite a performance. Susan Hathaway follows Cooper. Hathaway frames her argument around the importance of honoring veterans. I find it interesting that neither speaker mentions references their association with the Virginia Flaggers. The speaker that followed Hathaway, however, does identify himself as a Flagger and even goes as far as to threaten the city council.
I’ve always been interested in how our beliefs about the past are weaved through our understanding of the present. All of us are influenced by our personal values and assumptions concerning a wide range of issues from politics to personal background. It is with this in mind that I find Confederate heritage groups such as the Virginia Flaggers to be so interesting and, at times, worthy of our attention.
Last night my old home of Charlottesville, Virginia held a community meeting to discuss whether the annual recognition of Lee-Jackson Day ought to continue. I wish I could have been there to listen and even participate. Charlottesville was a wonderful place to teach the Civil War and Civil War memory. The city includes a wonderful Confederate cemetery adjacent to the UVA campus and the downtown area features two parks named in honor of Lee and Jackson. Both include impressive equestrian monuments.
A few years ago the Lee monument in Charlottesville was vandalized and I spoke out against it as well as articulated a reason to maintain these monuments. They perform a function and serve as a reminder of our collective past. I have a different view of Lee-Jackson Day.
Back to the Flaggers. In attendance last night was Karen Cooper. She is a member of the Flaggers and as far as I can tell their only African-American member. I’ve written a bit about her in the past, but this post by Brooks Simpson offers a concise overview. At one point Cooper took to the podium and shared the following:
I’m just sick of liberals always babying black people. If they act like babies, they will stay like babies until you make them grow up. Make them grow up.
While she spoke with some passion it’s not clear to me what this has to do with maintaining Lee-Jackson Day or anything having to do with the Confederate past. In fact, I suspect that this speech had a negative impact on city councilors.
It’s a perfect example of why the Confederate heritage movement has come up short in recent years and will continue to come up short regarding the display of Confederate flags in public spaces, the recognition of holidays such as Lee-Jackson Day and the preservation of Confederate monuments. Cooper’s comment is an extreme example of what happens when politics and, more specifically, racial politics, overshadows a case for the preservation of reminders of the past. In other words, while we may have learned more than we wanted to know about Cooper’s racial outlook, we learn nothing about the issue at hand.
I believe that a reasonable case can be made to preserve reminders of the Confederate past in public spaces. Last night a few people attempted to articulate such a position, but most failed to move beyond the tired cliches that are standard fair at these occasions. What will no longer work is an argument that frames the decision around the most extreme distinctions that pit one group against another.
Lee-Jackson Park in Charlottesville and other such places around the South were established at a time of strict racial segregation. We should welcome the changes that have taken place in the past few decades, but along with those changes comes increased participation in public decisions about how a community collectively acknowledges its past.
I don’t know what is going to happen in Charlottesville, but regardless of the decision the arguments by Karen Cooper and others point directly to an inevitable outcome.