To The Editor:
The recent debate in Cleveland regarding the appropriateness of the Confederate monument located at the intersection of North Ocoee and Broad streets has prompted my observations and opinion. While not a current resident, I spent 40 years in Cleveland and Bradley County and still consider it my home. I have family and friends there, and I visit often. I follow the news carefully.
For those who may not know or remember, I served most of the 1990s as the chairman of the Bradley County Republican Party. I worked for the election of numerous officeholders, both past and present. I have deep roots in the community, not only because of my work in politics, but also as a community leader and volunteer.
The debate over such monuments has always troubled this southern boy whose ancestors fought and died for the Confederacy. I also descend from a lengthy line of slave owners. I am not proud of these facts.
From my earliest days, I was always conflicted about honoring Confederate soldiers. After all, did they not fight to preserve slavery, one of the most heinous institutions in human history? If the South had won, would we not be left with two nations, both weaker as a result?
The counter-argument has been that while everyone today recognizes the evil of slavery and supports the United States, these monuments are here to honor our southern past and our forefathers. They are part of our heritage, part of our culture. Our ancestors fought for a cause in which they believed. We should honor them, even if they were wrong. I find this argument dishonest.
I do not think most Americans would appreciate a monument to Benedict Arnold. He was the American Revolution’s most famous traitor. To honor him and the Loyalists who fought against our Continental Army would be unthinkable. Were not these supporters of the British Crown also fighting for a wrong, but honorable cause?
All the Confederate monuments sprang up in the Jim Crow era, a period after the Civil War when federal troops withdrew from the South. That time extended until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. During that era, the southern states once again exerted control. They suppressed the former slaves and their descendants, denied them voting rights, and instituted segregation. The monuments constructed during that time convey these sentiments, and these facts resist efforts to reinterpret that history today.
I am disappointed — but not surprised — that no elected official, as of yet, either city or county, has announced their support for removing this Confederate statue. It seems they are content to hide behind a 1911 deed the city of Cleveland conveyed to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis Chapter 900. It gave them a twelve-foot square piece of land on which they built the monument.
These officials shrug and say the statue sits on private property. The issue is out of their hands. This argument is convenient, but disingenuous. City officials have an array of options, including eminent domain, to force the issue. Real leadership calls for those in power to stand up and do the right thing even if it flows against the tide of public opinion.
City Councilman Bill Estes has offered a compromise to relocate the Union memorial currently situated in Fort Hill Cemetery to stand alongside the Confederate one. But this idea too misses the point. His solution glosses over the brutal history of what the Confederacy and the Jim Crowe era entailed. Interpretative signage is insufficient. It will not appease the pain many Americans see when they look up at a Confederate memorial.
Remove the monument. Relocate it to the nearby Confederate Cemetery. If people want to honor their Civil War ancestors, do it there, in private. But let us no longer recognize our Confederate past in the public square. An honest accounting of that time should be remembered and taught, but only in our history books and museums.
— Michael Willis
Asheville, N.C .