Returning to Charlottesville
I learned every day I must choose to live and stand in the nation I believe in … all the while knowing the nation I believe in is not always the nation that is. And such is this American life.
On May 21, 1924 in Lee Park, after being seven years in the making, a statue of Robert E. Lee on his horse Traveler was presented to the city of Charlottesville, Va. The ceremony took place during a reunion of the Confederate Veterans, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. A hundred cadets from the Virginia Military Institute paraded dressed as Confederate soldiers. The shroud of the Confederate flag, covering the statue, was pulled away by three-year-old Mary Walker Lee, a great-grand-daughter of Robert E. Lee. After the ceremony, parties and balls ensued. At that very same moment in time, a world away from Charlottesville, in a prison cell in the small town of Landsberg am Lech, Bavaria, a man was penning his memoirs, He named the manuscript Mein Kampf; a warning of the war to come.
Six hundred and twenty thousand Americans died in a war that threatened to rip asunder the nation I believe in, a nation founded on the bedrock principles of freedom, equality and justice for all. Robert E. Lee was a treasonist and a racist. Within the nation that is, there are those who would erect statues to this man whose heart was able to embrace graves and mutilations for his own kind in order oppress, subjugate and de-humanize another … a blind man who could not see there is but one kind. The monuments erected to him, during the era of night riders, lynchings and burnings, were intended to be an explicit message to people of color; a warning of a war not yet ended.
Eventually, the city of Charlottesville changed the name of Lee Park to Emancipation Park. This and their decision to remove the statue of this man who rode against all we strive to be are acts that move the nation that is … nearer the nation I believe in. God bless the people of Charlottesville.
Within the nation that is, there are those who argue such a man is a part of our heritage and should be remembered. Yes, the man who would split a nation into two nations, the man who was bothered less by human limbs and corpses left on battlefields than he was with the idea of enslavement, is a part of our heritage. This is an unfortunate truth … as is the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese-Americans … as is the genocide of over 10 million Native Americans … as is the incineration of over 185,000 civilians … men, women and children by an atomic bomb … as is the kidnapping and enslavement of a people. None of these parts of our heritage should ever be forgotten. None of these parts of our heritage should ever be glorified.
How I fight for the nation I believe in is as important as the idea of the nation itself. There are those, within the nation that is, who attempt to mask the wretchedness of the supremacist cause by suggesting moral equivalencies between those who marched in Charlottesville out of fear and hate with those who marched against such things. There are no such equivalencies.
This is not to say there were not some of those who marched for the nation I believe in who were wrong. There were. One does not march for peace wearing helmets and carrying shields and clubs. What are such things against the assault rifles the Nazis came with anyway? When one comes to a demonstration for love in opposition to hate, one must only bring love.
There were some who failed to understand effective history. They didn’t remember that it was a hippie girl placing a flower in the barrel of a gun held by a national guardsman, a gesture of peace, so clearly speaking against war. That it was the acts of supremely courageous meekness on a bridge in Selma, people willfully suffering violent injustice that forged a path to justice. That it was the silence of a man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square that will forever speak the loudest to the world. There is a way to fight wrong … right.
In the past few weeks since Charlottesville, I have spent a great deal of time asking myself how it is I can help transform the nation that is into the nation I believe in. While asking this question I came upon the story of Frank Meeink.
Frank Meeink was a racist, a self-proclaimed white supremacist. He hated blacks. He hated Puerto Ricans. Most of all, he hated Jews. Then Frank began to change. It was friendship that was effecting the transformation in his heart. But Frank Meeink is not the hero of his own story. He is the beneficiary.
As Frank Meeink began his renaissance, he discovered how difficult it is for one to live in the mainstream, to even find a job when one’s face, neck, chest, back and arms are covered with Nazi tattoos. When Frank needed a job, it was a man named Keith, I don’t know his last name, who when confronted by the obscene swatzitka emblazoned on Frank’s neck … gave Frank a job … Keith is Jewish.
It is Keith for whom a monument should be built. It is Keith who teaches me that the way for me to reconcile the nation I believe in and the nation that is … is to live and stand in the nation I believe in. This is all I have learned today.
James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org