Fights over history are really contests for children’s minds. And the stakes are high enough that adults have put children in harm’s way. Last week, people protesting the removal of Confederate flags in New Orleans brandished guns and at least one assault rifle within range of a local school known for diversity. School officials casually laid down measuring tape to see if protesters violated federal law that requires a 1,000-foot “firearm-free zone” around schools. And armed protesters flouted Orleans Parish criminal code, which makes it illegal to possess firearms at demonstrations.
Keeping guns away from schools and demonstrations should be prioritized, but accomplishing that on a technicality misses the mark.
Confederate monuments will always encourage division, guns and fighting because they were constructed to serve as a symbolic line in the sand. And that’s why I’m glad Southern states have begun the healing process of removing monuments that provide a battleground for those for whom the war is never over.
After the 2015 Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston, S.C., in which white supremacist and neo-Confederate Dylann Roof killed nine African-American congregants, people took action. Activists boosted their efforts to remove Confederate tributes across the Deep South and sparked conversations that have helped correct the historical record, honor the democracy of living citizens and move our communities closer to democratic ideals.
But law officials must not only quickly remove these sources of violence, they must also enforce laws designed to protect our children. Public school officials should make the loudest demands that Confederate monuments belong in museums where guns are not allowed.
A laissez-faire attitude toward protecting our children and removing the monuments is a sign that injustice has been normalized. These monuments were clearly not meant for me to remember or honor (the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow segregation are enough for me). No, these Confederate monuments were meant to indoctrinate children into a system of white supremacy and to normalize the hate that is leveled against groups that disagree.
In 1907, thousands surrounded the unveiling of the Jefferson Davis Memorial (one of four monuments the city of New Orleans democratically decided in 2015 to remove), including 500 students from the city’s all-white schools. Davis was the first and only president of the Confederate States of America, and he died in New Orleans. Young people dressed in Confederate colors were arranged to form a Confederate flag, said to be a “living battle flag,” and sang “Dixie,” a Southern anthem popularized by blackface minstrel shows in the early 20th century.
These students in 1907 were essentially indoctrinated at an altar of white supremacy. Davis died in 1889, before the students attending the unveiling of his memorial were born. Those who did know and admire Davis erected the monument to pledge white children into a Confederate nation that had failed to be achieved.
Idly waiting for the issue to resolve itself and ignoring gun laws are signs that educators, students and law enforcement have grown accustomed to hate. But their maladjustment puts students under the immediate threat of gunfire and continues desensitizing them to injustice. Students today don’t have to form a living battle flag when they walk past it every day.
Yet many have refused to stand idly by. In New Orleans, the City Council voted 6-1 in 2015 to remove four Confederate monuments after deeming them “public nuisances.” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who pushed the legislation, has taken the effort to remove Confederate symbols to the national stage. And members of the grassroots #TakeEmDownNOLA movement, an affiliation of individuals dedicated to removing the monuments, have marched regularly.
There has been significant pushback. People who are part of the #TakeEmDownNOLA movement have received menacing emails and/or death threats. The original company that was contracted to remove the statues had its equipment vandalized along with the personal car of the owner.
One of the pro-Confederate protesters, who calls himself “Black Rebel” and was pictured in a Times-Picayune article in the presence of guns near schools, has posted a Facebook picture of a massacre he labeled “after the battle of New Orleans 2017 is over.”
The fastest way to stop the threats and potential violence is by enforcing the law. That means arresting gun-carrying protesters, removing the monuments and protecting those who simply want the law enforced. It also means educating our children.
The national drive to remove these monuments should be added to students’ U.S. history books to put tainted Confederate heroes in context. Confederates get recognition, but there are other people who don’t get credit for their legacies and should. The people who opposed or derailed memorials of pro-slavery segregationists and secessionists should get what they’re due in schoolbooks.
Activists and elected officials who are pushing to remove the monuments are not destroying history, because that’s impossible to do. They are taking white supremacist Confederate symbols away from public spaces.
As the movement spreads, so will the threats. In Charlottesville, Va., the City Council voted in April to move the city’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and to rename Lee and Jackson parks. In May, the city of Biloxi, Miss., mandated the removal of all flags containing the Confederate Army emblem from the city’s public properties.
The fight to remove hate may be our longest war. We must remove the statues and guns now so that students can learn the struggle of our country’s democracy out of the shadow of violence.
You can view part of the rally here:
Watch people who are marching in support of removing Confederate monuments challenge others who are waving Confederate flags in the shadow of the Robert E. Lee statue at a rally Sunday in New Orleans:
This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with The Root.