Make no mistake about it, yesterday’s neo-Nazi rally in defense of the Robert E. Lee monument was a turning point in the broader debate about the place of these structures in our communities. Yes, monuments have already been taken down and flags lowered, but the sight of swastikas, battle flags, and men carrying automatic weapons will shift the relevant questions and clarify what is at stake moving forward.
The mayor of Lexington, Kentucky announced that he will take steps to remove his city’s Confederate monuments. I suspect others will as well and it will likely accelerate the process in cities like Baltimore. The city of Richmond, as I suggested yesterday, will not be able to move forward as planned with simply trying to steer a middle course. They will have to bite the bullet and come to terms with the core issue at hand.
What Dylann Roof did for the Confederate battle flag, James Alex Fields Jr. has done for the Confederate monument debate in killing one woman and seriously injuring scores. The neo-Nazis/neo-Confederates did not come to Charlottesville to engage in a peaceful demonstration to protect their Confederate or Southern heritage. They came armed with automatic weapons and wearing paramilitary uniforms and they killed and wounded in the name of Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy.
Our president may not be able to identify the nature of the violence witnessed yesterday in Charlottesville, but plenty of others have and will continue to do. Yesterday’s violence fit neatly into the history of Confederate monuments. They commemorate individuals and a cause that sought to protect and expand a system of violence and white supremacy. They were erected during and as a result of the violence and intimidation that defined the Jim Crow Era. This group did not simply fall from the sky yesterday.
No one will be able to look at this debate moving forward apart from the images of death, gun-toting thugs, and the face of racism. Nor should they be expected to do so. This darkness is a core aspect of their legacy.
The only question that remains is whether these monuments will continue to serve as rallying points for people who identify with the very cause for which Lee, Jackson, and Davis were willing to give their lives to protect.