Thursday, June 1, 2017

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1564: An open letter to the people of Alabama

  I write this letter out of reluctant hope and constant pain. I am reluctantly hopeful the perspective set forth in this letter will be heard. I am greatly pained because history tells me that it will not be heard. Still I write because the issue is both important and urgent. I am writing about the issue of monuments on public property. Some say monuments are just big statues or names on buildings, streets, roads, bridges and public places and do not really matter.  Therefore, we should just leave monuments alone. I pray to differ. Monuments matter a whole lot because they impact past, present and future generations.

  We just went through an intense struggle in the Alabama Legislature over monuments. One side was struggling mightily to change state laws to prohibit monuments on public property from being removed or altered by municipal governments, county governments, school boards, public colleges and universities, parks, etc. Even names of streets, bridges, roads, buildings, public parks, etc. could not be changed. The other side was struggling mightily to keep the authority over monuments with local governmental entities. If monuments do not matter, why were both sides of a legislative body fighting so mightily? Monuments impact past, present and future generations.

  I spoke extensively on the Senate floor about the power of monuments. I will not recreate that speech. First, allow me to make the point that monuments are not history; they are symbols of somebody’s feelings about a particular historical person or event. When we place monuments on public property, we are lifting those persons in an extraordinary way. They are an example of how to live our lives. We are saying to current and future generations that they should strive to be like these persons. Monuments impact past, present and future generations.

  If you are White, I want you to imagine just for a brief moment, that your own children are Black. I know that it is hard, but try anyway. Imagine your Black children being told day after day to emulate Jeff Davis or Robert E. Lee, or Nathan Bedford Forrest or Stonewall Jackson. They will see or hear the names many times a day at their schools. The message of each encounter is that these are great men that these children should emulate. Now let your mind recall that the fore parents of these Black children were bound in the worst form of human slavery known to humankind. Recall further that these men who lifted such monuments were fighting to keep their fore-parents bound in that oppressive slavery. Now understand that these monuments tell these Black children that this is what they should be like when they grow up.  Monuments impact past, present and future generations.

  Now make the switch and imagine your children are White. Do you really want your children to grow up to enslave Black people? When we get down to the essence of the matter, do you really want our children fighting to enslave anyone? When we lift these individuals who fought so determinedly to keep African Americans enslaved, we are saying emulate, emulate, emulate.  Monuments matter a whole lot because they impact generations. Monuments impact past, present and future generations.

  Let me ask you this question. Would you want your children attending a school named Nat Turner? I know you would say, “No.” Would you want a monument to Nat Turner on the town square? I know you would say, “No.” I believe that would be your position even though Nat Turner was an enslaved person trying to free his enslaved people. Monuments matter a whole lot because they impact past, present and future generations.

  All of the aforementioned men and others honored with such monuments were white supremacists. They believed that White people were supremely superior to Black people. They strongly believed Black people were not only of a lower class but a lower species as well. They believed Black people were subhuman. If you don’t believe me, check out the U.S. Supreme Court Dred Scott ruling. It specifically held that Black people were considered “subhuman.” Do we really want our children to grow up to be White supremacists thinking that Black people are subhuman? That’s really what these monuments on public property say to our children. Monuments impact past, present and future generations.

  All of these men and others lifted high by such monuments would be called traitors today if they waged war on the United States of America. More than six hundred thousand human beings died in the Civil War. Do we really want to tell our children that all these lives lost to enslave other people was a great thing? That’s the message these monuments send day after day after day.  Monuments impact past, present and future generations.

  I realize that many choose to believe that this was not a Civil War but a War Between the States. Some also believe that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but over states rights, and therefore waging war against the Union was a patriotic act. If you think the War was not about perpetuating slavery, please examine the declarations that Confederate states made when succeeding from the Union. Nearly every declaration makes it clear that slavery was the central issue. Monuments impact past, present and future generations.

  With monuments of Nathan Bedford Forrest, we not only say to our children that waging war against the United States of America is noble, but we also say that the Ku Klux Klan that terrorized the lives of Black people for one hundred years is noble. Nathan Bedford Forrest built the Klan into a national power. More than 4,000 African-Americans were publically lynched with nothing ever done about it. Too often, local and state officials joined in the lynching. What the Klan and others did was state-sanctioned terrorism because neither local, state nor federal governments did anything to prevent the lynching or punish the lynchers. Every monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest lifts state-sanctioned terrorism. Monuments impact past, present and future generations.

  I wish I had more space for there is so much more to be said. One legislator recently declared that anyone who tried to have a monument removed should be lynched.

Epilogue – It takes an extraordinary people to rise above what they have been taught and what they have believed all their lives. These challenging times call for such a people. Can we rise to the occasion?

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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