On August 19 Judge Martin Clark removed Stuart’s portrait from Patrick County, Virginia’s Circuit Court courtroom. Yesterday he offered a lengthy explanation for his actions and is well worth reading. On a side note, if I were teaching my Civil War memory class this year my students would be reading and discussing this document. It raises a number of relevant questions about the intersection of history, public memory and justice.
Judge Clark shares his understanding of the history and legacy of the Confederacy, which he apparently learned in James “Bud” Robertson’s classroom at Virginia Tech. What I find interesting, however, is how the placement of Stuart’s portrait fits into his understanding of the public’s understanding of justice.
It will be an unpopular decision in many quarters, especially given that the courthouse is located in a town named in Stuart’s honor. Still, it is my goal—and my duty as a judge—to provide a trial setting that is perceived by all participants as fair, neutral and without so much as a hint of prejudice. Confederate symbols are, simply put, offensive to African Americans, and this reaction is based on fact and clear, straightforward history. Bigotry saturates the Confederacy’s founding principles, its racial aspirations and its public pronouncements.
He goes on to reference various secession documents in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Virginia. To drive his point home about the importance of maintaining a neutral setting for all citizens Judge Clark asks his white readers to imagine the following scenario.
The courtroom should be a place every litigant and spectator finds fair and utterly neutral. In my estimation, the portrait of a uniformed Confederate general—and a slave owner himself—does not comport with that essential standard. By way of example, I’ll ask my fellow white Patrick Countians how they’d respond to this scenario: Imagine walking into a courtroom, your liberty at stake, and you discover a black judge, a black bailiff, a black commonwealth’s attorney, a black clerk and a black defense lawyer. You are the only white person there. You peer at the wall, and you see a picture of Malcom X—a Nation of Islam member who preached black superiority and demeaned the white race. What assumptions would you make about that courtroom, the judicial system and the black judge who allowed that portrait to remain on the wall? Would you feel certain that you’d receive fair, unbiased treatment with Malcolm X celebrated and honored in the place where your rights are being adjudicated? I would not, and that’s why General Stuart’s portrait has been removed. Given how fierce and divisive the debate over the Confederate flag has become, it should be obvious that symbols convey powerful meanings to many reasonable people, and we do not need this complication in a courtroom.
What makes this such a powerful argument overall has everything to do with the fact that Judge Clark is not an outsider. His roots are deep in Patrick County. His understanding of history comes from a well respected Southern historian. Once again, it goes to a point I’ve been making all summer. This heated debate about Confederate history and iconography is not being imposed on Southern communities from outside. Clark is not a modern day scalawag or carpetbagger. He is a responsible citizen of Virginia working through some very difficult issues.