This summer, many long-standing monuments to the Confederacy have been removed, or forcefully taken down, but new ones are still being raised. On Sunday, I went to the unveiling of a Confederate monument near my home town, in Alabama, in a place called Crenshaw County. The ceremony was organized by a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and it took place in a privately owned Confederate-memorial park, where a crowd of more than two hundred people had assembled on a sunny afternoon.
When I drove into the park, several men in biker gear were checking cars near the entrance. They let me pass through after I assured them that I didn’t have a camera. The Alabama chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. had denounced the unveiling, and, because of the attention, the event’s organizers had barred television-news crews from attending. There were people of all ages on the grassy field, including some young families with small children, and many attendees held Confederate flags or wore clothing emblazoned with the flag. Members of a private militia, dressed in military fatigues and carrying heavy guns, roamed the field. “They’re here just in case,” someone said. As far as I could see, I was the only African-American.
The commander of the Alabama division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a man named Jimmy Hill, went to the stage to speak. It “sickened” him, he said, to see what had been going on with Confederate monuments around the country. History, “their” history, was being torn down, and the media was distorting what people like him were trying to do. “A guy said, ‘You’re glorifying the Confederacy by putting up that monument,’ ” Hill went on. “I said, ‘You do realize this is to the unknown Confederate men who left Alabama, in Crenshaw County, and they’re buried in some battlefield shallow grave, and we don’t know where they’re at. That is remembering our brave ancestors, not glorifying anybody.’ ”
Hill spoke the name of his relative who had served in the Confederate Army, and several people in the crowd then called out the names of their relatives. An older man next to the stage rang a bell after each name. Then everyone walked over to a farther point in the field where the statue would be unveiled. It was just a gray headstone with the words “Unknown AL Soldier” and “CSA,” and then the epitaph “Mother, I have been found, I am home.” A group of men dressed in a uniform of red shirts, white suspenders, and gray caps fired off rounds of blanks from their rifles while audience members held up their phones to capture the spectacle.
A middle-aged blond woman named Marla, wearing a black tank top with the words “Biker for Trump,” came over to me and said that she had lost friends of color because of her support of Confederate memorials. “Nobody’s monuments should be destroyed,” she said, getting emotional and holding my hand. “I would be fine to keep up Martin Luther King’s monument, or Rosa Parks, or anyone else. It’s our history; it’s our life. It’s just not right. It has nothing to do with color.” She wiped a tear away, and went on. “You can pick out something and look at it and say, ‘See how far we’ve come,’ or you can say, ‘There’s a reminder of a horrible time.’ It’s just how you decide to look at it with your heart.” Her “daddy,” she said, had marched with King. Her grandmother would read the Bible to black people who worked in her fields, to help them learn how to read.
Another man approached to tell me about the research that he had done into his ancestry. He had learned, he said, that one of his forebearers had adopted a “Negro orphan boy” into his Confederate family after the Civil War. This fact, along with other tidbits he’d uncovered into how they had interacted with black people, proved that it was impossible to define “a whole generation or culture of people at a time.”
A group of women in period dress—big hoop skirts and dresses—milled around. One of them told me that they belonged to an organization called the Order of the Confederate Rose. (On its Web site, the organization says that it promotes “the honorable memory of the Confederate soldiers, Southern Symbols, true history, and true Southern Heritage.”) I asked about a teen-age girl in a puffy dress who appeared to be of mixed race; she turned out to be the woman’s niece. “She’s black and white,” the woman told me. “You don’t see a lot of African-Americans in Confederate organizations, but there were African-American soldiers in the South who actually volunteered to help stand up for states’ rights. So it wasn’t, to them, a slavery issue.” I met another woman who was originally from Michigan but now lives in Birmingham. She wore a camouflage baseball cap with Confederate trim. She took me to try out a reënactment cannon, telling me that she had no stakes in the fight: “I just want everybody’s history to be preserved. If you think that taking down a statue is going to change somebody’s heart, it’s never going to change their heart. Anger and hatred and all this racism is taught, it’s not a statue.”
Most of the attendees were so polite, and so eager to tell me that the Confederate legacy was divorced from slavery, that it reminded me of the peculiarity of racial relations in America, where a person who has racist beliefs believes himself to be absolved if he doesn’t consider himself racist. Beyond a modern political correctness, this way of thinking, and of self-deception, has been around since Reconstruction, when Southern whites who considered themselves well meaning could perform charitable deeds for, or often hire, their black neighbors, as long as those black people knew their place and stayed there. The attendees at the unveiling were asking me to accept their version of a harmonious history disrupted by outside troublemakers—“The N.A.A.C.P. was founded by a white socialist and a white progressive . . . and here we are today,” a woman told me—for the sake of continuing this myth of racial peace. We could all get along, if only African-Americans and their allies stopped causing unnecessary conflict. A man who spoke to me at the memorial later e-mailed a fellow-reporter, Connor Sheets, who covered the event, and wrote that he hoped “something positive” came out of my experience.
Cities from New Orleans to Baltimore have decided to take down Confederate statues, while others are considering doing so, and protesters forced down one in Durham, North Carolina. But Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, has defended the numerous monuments in the state, saying that Alabama’s history as “the cradle of the Confederacy and the birthplace of civil rights” needs to be preserved, and Birmingham’s mayor has even erected barriers around a statue in the city. The advocates for keeping the monuments often repeat lines about the need to learn from the past—a position endorsed by the President. But, from what I can see, after a childhood of streets, schools, and public landmarks named for Confederate heroes, and a present in which white-nationalist rallies still occur, those memorials had imparted few lessons. As I drove out of the grounds, a few men stationed at the exit raised their hands and waved me goodbye with big smiles.