Torpy at Large: Confederate monuments whitewash the truth

6:00 a.m. Friday, Aug. 18, 2017 Local
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Confederate flag sympathizers march past the carved monument at Stone Mountain Park to protest what they believe is an attack on their Southern heritage. (John Amis/ AJC 2015 file photo)

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams announced she wants to blast the Confederate carving off Stone Mountain.

Removing Confederate monuments from public spaces has become a white-hot issue since the deadly violence last weekend in Charlottesville, Va. It’s the old hate-versus-heritage debate, only now the brass knuckles are out.

So Abrams, who is staking out her place in a heated Democratic primary, decided to go bold on the issue. And what bigger symbol is there than Stone Mountain? It’s the mother of all Rebel symbols. To use a “Spinal Tap” analogy, she decided to flip the volume up to 11.

Not to be left out of the debate, Republican candidate Michael Williams, who’s on the other side of the spectrum, put out a bugle call to rally his troops.

He fired off an email entitled “Save Stone Mountain!” saying he’d boldly face down the “political correctness police.”

It’s all part of the political ecosystem, and this emotional debate carries enough plankton to feed all organisms. And with an estimated 700 Confederate statues in the United States, social and political causes will be fed for years.

The statues largely popped up in the late 1800s and early 1900s, decades after the Rebs picked a fight they couldn’t win. The monuments were set up to salve the lingering shame of defeat, so (white) Southerners concocted the idea of the noble and glorious Lost Cause.

No, the war wasn’t about slavery, Lost Cause adherents argued. (And still argue!) It was about “states’ rights,” about honor, about defending a way of life — albeit one based on the foundation of receiving free labor.

This week, I got out of the office and talked with regular folks at a couple of local flash points in this most current culture war.

I like approaching subjects for interviews. They are not predisposed to opinions like Facebook screamers.

Bill Torpy/AJC
Sara Pattenaude is part of an effort pushing a petition to remove the obelisk honoring Confederates from outside the old DeKalb County courthouse. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

First stop was the obelisk outside the old DeKalb County courthouse in downtown Decatur. A petition is circulating to remove the monument, which was erected in 1908 to honor Confederate soldiers.

The inscription was written by Hooper Alexander Sr., a prominent lawyer, who in 1915 set up the deal to start carving up Stone Mountain.

The monument “bears witness to the future that these men were of a covenant keeping race.” They were “modest in prosperity, gentle in peace, brave in battle and undespairing in defeat.”

The inscription ends with “that truth perish not” — which, of course, begs the question, “Whose truth?”

It certainly wasn’t Sam Starks’ truth. Starks, a black man who is a lawyer, said he is “absolutely” for moving it.

“It’s symbolic of a lot of bad things; something like that is antithetical to my beliefs,” he said. “It belongs in a museum, not in a public space next to the courthouse and the MARTA stop.”

But in my rounds of interviews, I found very few people as certain as Starks.

Polls show Americans — well, all except Republican Americans — are torn about what should happen to monuments.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is calling for the removal of what she calls a symbol of hatred.

A PBS poll found that 62 percent of Americans think statues honoring leaders of the Confederacy should remain, while 27 percent say they should be removed.

Dems are split, 44 percent saying stay, 47 percent saying go.

Republicans? Solid as a rock: 86 percent for keeps, 6 percent for kaput.

Interestingly — to me, anyway — black people are evenly split on the issue (once you allow for a margin of error), with 44 percent saying yea, 40 percent saying nay.

This card shows a black Union soldier bayonetting a Confederate soldier. (Library of Congress)

Here’s what I found after spending several hours this week interviewing 16 black people:

» Six had mixed feelings about removal.

» Eight said to keep ‘em, even though they didn’t necessarily like ‘em.

» And two were in the removal camp, although there’s not much support to hoist a gigantic sanding machine to scrape away Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and the other fellow from the mountain.

Terrance Pinckney, an administrator from Decatur who is black (as are all who I quote in this story), shrugged when I asked where he stood.

“This is very complicated,” he said. “I understand what it represents. It’s being portrayed as culture and heritage, although that culture and heritage is based in bondage.

“But I think removing it drives a deeper wedge between the communities,” he said. “I’d call it an appeasement-oriented effort instead of one achieving justice.”

Bill Torpy/AJC
James Parham, a veteran, has mixed feelings about Confederate monuments, including the one outside the old DeKalb County courthouse. Removing them “is not going to cure racism,” he said. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

James Parham smiled when I described the Lost Cause. “It’s kinda like ‘The 300,’ the brave soldiers who lost,” he said, referring to the movie where a batch of Spartans kill a zillion Persians before perishing.

Parham, a retired soldier, said, “I have a mixed reaction. We want to remove a symbol of racism. But the men of the war themselves fought for what they thought was right. I think of the soldiers and their leaders differently.”

At Stone Mountain, Tara Johnson, a surgical technician, finished her speed-walk and said this of the huge carving: “It doesn’t make me who I am. I could care less. It doesn’t change anyone’s heart. It’s just made of stone.”

Fred Speights, a Gwinnett County schools employee, described mixed feelings. He said the monuments are history but he is bothered when they are appropriated by racists to stir up their toxic stew.

“I could see telling the full story,” he said. “Talk about all the history.”

It’s an idea with real currency.

I’ve spoken several times on this subject with DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond, who is also a historian. He notes that many, if not most, Confederate monuments were built to burnish the Lost Cause myth. What’s needed, he said, is a true accounting of why they were built, and the stories of those not included.

Or tear them down.

That’s what a man named Rick Davis told me outside Stone Mountain’s Confederate Hall. He puts himself “in the middle” when it comes to removal.

“The removal part can get complicated,” he said. “It’s part of history, negative history. Make them tell the full story. Information is still the key.

“America is a melting pot of different opinions. People need to stop and listen.”

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