The Danger of Forgetting History

By Robert R. Macdonald

The Make It Right campaign to remove the John C. Calhoun monument from Marion Square devalues the importance of studying and understanding the past. Forgetting moments from our personal lives and our shared national history is natural. Who wants to be reminded of the times we as individuals and as a nation failed to live up to our highest ideals and self-image? However, forgetting history will not change the past, rather it leads to the creation of self-serving mythologies.  

A prime example of this mythologizing is the fable of the “Lost Cause” created in the late nineteenth century by Southern apologists to justify the Civil War. The Calhoun monument and other confederate memorials are physical manifestations of the fiction that the South’s secession from the Union was based on the so-called noble cause of protecting the region from Northern dominance. History documents the South separated from the Union to maintain white supremacy and the right to enslave African men, women and children as the foundation of the Southern life.

The Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, adopted in Charleston, South Carolina on Christmas Eve in 1860, and the “Cornerstone Speech,” given in Savannah, Georgia the following spring by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, both underscore the centrality of white supremacy and the maintenance of slavery as the causes for which the South left the Union and fought a bloody war which took more than 600,000 American lives. 

History tells us that confederate monuments like Calhoun’s were constructed during the violent fall of the Reconstruction era and Northern abandonment of freedmen. The Calhoun monument was placed on Marion Square at the beginning of the South Carolina’s Jim Crow era and the memorial to the Defenders of Charleston was built in White Point Garden in 1932 at the apex of the Ku Klux Klan and only four years before the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel Gone With the Wind mythologizing white plantation nirvana that history records never existed. William Faulkner famous words, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” speak to the institutional persistence of white supremacy into the present as evident in disparities in education, employment, housing, incarceration, immigration and politics.  

If we wish to understand the present and address the future it is important to study and value history and keep Jim Crow era monuments to the “Lost Cause” as windows to our past. The Calhoun monument and others can deliver important lessons when contextualized, not with plaques, but by creating new monuments to the victims of white supremacy and the men and women who fought against it and died living up to our nation’s values and ideals. This is what the Make It Right campaign should apply its talents and energies toward instead of trying to remove the Calhoun monument. 

 

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