How to reckon with a Confederate past

Watch: New Orleans removes Confederate monument
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Story highlights

  • Issac Bailey: Removing Confederate monuments is a long overdue reckoning with our past
  • It is not about forgetting our past; it is about undoing the whitewashing done by those who came before us, Bailey writes

Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Confederate monuments and Confederate flags on public property weren't designed to honor the leaders of the Confederate States of America. They were installed and flown as an everyday reminder to black Southerners, that their homes are not their own, that their bodies can be taken the way their ancestors were, that their voices don't matter.

Issac Bailey
That's what's changing in New Orleans as construction workers undertake the work of removing four statues and monuments dedicated to one of the worst periods of US history. It's a long overdue grappling with the reality that many Americans remain comfortable worshipping men who commit great evil.
It's more than symbolic that the workers removing the monuments had to wear masks to hide their identities and be protected by a gaggle of armed law enforcement officials and initially do their work under the cover of night because of the threats they've received. It harkens back to the days white violence was used to oppress black Southerners, especially when they dared to make progress at the ballot box, in the classroom, to assert their God-given rights.
    Corey Stewart, a Republican hoping to be the next governor of Virginia, and others like him are so blinded by their rage, their hatred, they can't see the irony in their protests.
    "It appears ISIS has won," Stewart tweeted. "They are tearing down historical monuments in New Orleans now too. It must end. Despicable!"
    He then tweeted an image of an ISIS fighter destroying historical monuments in the Middle East next to one doing the same to a statue of an American hero.
    Stewart doesn't seem to realize that the Confederate-inspired Ku Klux Klan was an American form of ISIS. The Confederate leaders Stewart and others want to forever have places of honor gave rise to a Jim Crow South where systematic lynching, raping, and killing occurred on our soil for longer and caused more damage than ISIS has in the Middle East.
    Leaving up Confederate flag and monuments built by men honoring that horror would be akin to forcing the victims of ISIS to forever live under the notorious ISIS black flag and live amid monuments and statutes dedicated to "brave" ISIS commanders.
    In New Orleans, the statues slated for removal depict Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard: three of the most prominent members of the Confederate States of America -- leaders of a movement that committed treason against the U.S. and tried to implement a permanent state of black enslavement. How can we teach our kids to do right while providing special recognition for those who did so much wrong? Also to be removed is the memorial to the Battle of Liberty Place, which was originally erected to mark a deadly failed uprising by the "Crescent City White League" and later inscribed with a dedication to "white supremacy."
    No self-aware public institutions would build monuments to such men today for reasons that are beyond obvious. They don't represent a diversifying American public struggling to live up to its highest ideals. Their most prominent acts threatened the principles upon which we are trying to perfect America. The only question is what should be done about the monuments those who came before us built. Must we forever memorialize how they defined America?
    I think not. Removing those statues, like renaming buildings that bear their name or taking down the Confederate flag -- and even reexamining the presence of slave owners and slave rapists on our currency -- is a long overdue reckoning with our past.
    These statues have no place in public space. Museums are designed to contend with the complexity of these men's legacies, something that can't be practically done with a few lines of text carved into a statue. Don't destroy the monuments; allow the best minds in our best museums to find ways to preserve and display them. It is not about forgetting our past; it is about undoing the whitewashing done by those who came before us.
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    We are well into the 21st century and have yet to find the moral courage to say that if you commit some of the most horrific acts known to man -- owning other human beings, betraying your country to preserve slavery -- you forfeit the right to be remembered on public monuments and statues and currency that should be reserved for only the best among us.
    The best among us have never been perfect. But they found ways to do as much good and as little bad as possible. They should be our standard bearers, not those too morally weak and too blind to follow their lead.