What did Robert E Lee do wrong

Civil war memorials cause controversy in the US southern states

It is one of those monuments found all over the American South. Robert Edward Lee rides into the imaginary distance in heroic pose, his full beard precisely trimmed, a saber on the saddle, surrounded by sweeping treetops in a small park named after him. In the American Civil War, Lee was the commander in chief of the Southern Army. A general who had inflicted some severe defeats on the armies of the north but surrendered in April 1865. And whom some in the south still glorify as the noblest of all gentlemen. "It's time he left," says Lisa Woolfork.

Woolfork, lecturer in English literature at the University of Virginia, lists the reasons why a Robert E. Lee should no longer be on a granite plinth. She speaks of an antiquated symbol that grotesquely distorts what really happened in the civil war. A slim majority in Charlottesville City Hall saw it similarly. It was decided in February that the general must give way. With three votes against two, the city council decided to ban the equestrian statue from public space. For too long, the reason was that the squares of the city had been used to glorify white superiority thinking and to ignore the Afro-American part of the story.

Actually, the statue of Glory should have long been removed from Lee Park, which is now called Emancipation Park, named after Abraham Lincoln's proclamation on the abolition of slavery. Actually, three street corners away, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, a second Civil War general, is no longer enthroned on his pedestal. But neighbors appealed, the case is in legal limbo, and as long as nothing has been decided, it causes a stir. Sleepy Charlottesville, picturesquely situated at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, turns into a cauldron at least once a month.

"I don't have the time to hate"

Once there is a march of the Ku Klux Klan that brings the city to its peace. Around a thousand people have gathered around the riding Jackson to make it clear that they are long gone, the times when the Klan could spread fear and terror with burning crosses without anyone daring to rebel. Drum beats, saxophone sounds, chants. "I don't have the time to hate," it says on a poster. "Hey, Trump, we found a few terrorists," reads a second. Helmeted police officers pull up, they guard a narrow lane that leads from a courthouse to the monument hill.

Wearing a blue robe and a hood on his head, at some point a man named Chris Barker walks through the blue uniformed trellis, a 38-year-old who calls himself Imperial Wizard. The leader of the Loyal White Knights. About forty followers march with him, some with white hoods, others with baseball caps, almost all of them with pistols in their belts. Barker had announced that if necessary, his people would take up arms to defend themselves. The gestures of his followers are just as provocative as his words. Some raise their arms in a Nazi salute, others wave the Southern Confederate war flag, still others smoke and look challengingly over at the angry crowd on the other side of the police force.

Incitement against Jews

Barker gives a sinister speech, he gossips about the races that must be separated if America wants to grow again. Much is drowned out in the deafening noise, and when he begins to rush against the Jews, a young woman pushes herself into the first row behind the barricade. "Shalom Y'all" it says on her t-shirt. Shalom to all of you.

Why the march? Why this provocation? For the clan's racists, the monuments are something like totem figures, explains Lisa Woolfork. Figures of their power. "If they are dismantled, their power will be decimated, and they will not accept that." Woolfork follows up with a short history course, starting with the civil war. In 1861, when the Southern Confederation renounced the union, the population of Albemarle County, whose administrative center is Charlottesville, was 52 percent African-American, most of them enslaved.

War losers wanted revenge

When Lincoln had enforced the liberation of slaves and at the same time industrialization was picking up pace between Chicago and New York, many of the black residents moved to the metropolitan areas of the north. Not just because there was work there. Also because the losers of the war were looking for revenge and, Woolfork says, they were establishing a regime of terrorist violence.

In 1898, an African American named John Henry James in Albemarle County was lynched by a white mob: dragged from the train that was supposed to take him to prison and hanged from a tree. In 1921 the Klan founded an offshoot in Charlottesville. In this context, says Woolfork, you have to see the monuments. Both set up in the 1920s, they stand for a romanticizing view of what some still call the "Lost Cause". The lost cause of the south: There is a lot of longing in the term, longing for the good old days.

It's less about Lee, Woolfork adds, but more about what people made of him after his death. A talisman of conceit. That's why these monuments belong in the museum, not on lawns in the middle of Charlottesville. "The public space of this city has to be there for everyone, it cannot be that we divulge it in order to celebrate racist ideas."

"Let them talk"

Mark Martin is also holding a poster in his hand, he is sitting at the end of a pedestrian zone in the shade of a mighty oak. "Let the KKK have their say. Racism will not win the day," he wrote on light green cardboard. In the open competition of ideas, argues the teacher, the Ku Klux Klan is on a losing streak. The principle of unrestricted freedom of speech, as it applies in America, also applies to the Klan. "So let them talk. With the nonsense they preach, they'll lose out in every argument."

Martin collects signatures with which passers-by promise to have their ancestry researched by means of a genetic test. He even got one of Barker's followers to add himself to the list. He smiles mischievously when he talks about it: This man will also notice that there is no such thing as purebred as soon as he receives the test result. As far as the monuments are concerned, Martin would leave them standing and put up plaques that soberly explain the past, instead of surrounding them with legends.

Against the gentle tour

No, replies David Straughn, a black poet and actor who has pulled on a T-shirt from the "Black Lives Matter" movement. No, the gentle tour does not bring anything. If the Klan really wants to hold a rally, they should do it somewhere in the forest, says Straughn. "But when he comes to our city, we have to face him. We have been marching with bowed heads for too long, we have been too good for too long." But now I'm sitting with Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's chief strategist, a man in the White House whom the ideologues of hatred see themselves encouraged by. It is no longer enough just to sing "We Shall Overcome". "We'll make a hell of a racket," promises the 36-year-old.

Let the racists run wild? Provide explanatory texts on the monuments? Or away with them? The debate took off after Dylann Roof, a young white supremacy fanatic, shot and killed nine people in a traditional black church in Charleston. What had previously been so diligently denied by nostalgics could no longer be talked away after this act. The fact that Roof drove around with the Confederate war flag on the license plate of his car was no accident, after all, it represented murderous intent. The shock of the act was followed by the question of what should be done with the insignia of the old south.

Dangerous monument distance

New Orleans was the first major city to choose the more radical variant when it removed four monuments, an obelisk, plus the statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard and Lees. Three were dismantled under cover of night, the workers wore bulletproof vests because threats had been received. Only the last one could be dismantled in daylight.

New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu wrote, was once America's largest slave market. When Davis, Beauregard and Lee were cast in bronze, it was done with the intention of creating a whitewashed illusion to deny the death, enslavement and horror that were the essence of the Confederation. New Orleans was followed by Charlottesville, and Charlottesville may be followed by Richmond, the Confederate capital for a while, where a commission of historians will soon submit proposals.

Before Barker's hooded men move in with Jackson, Rabia Povich and the clergy of the "Clergy Collective" roam the streets of their city to pray that things will go off peacefully. "Yes, it's old history. But this man didn't sacrifice himself for the United States of America, but for the split states of America. We shouldn't honor him for that," she said of the equestrian figure. Yes, it's old history, that's how Kyle Printz sees it, too, to vehemently contradict Povich. "Because it's history, we shouldn't change anything about it," says the mid-seventies. He is a rebel, adds Printz, his great-grandfathers fought with Lee and Jackson against the Yankees, that is the tradition in which he stands. If you can't stand the sight of the statues, you should look away, it's that simple.

Lisa Woolfork hears them several times a day, the arguments that it's all about maintaining southern traditions, about family inheritance, not about aggressive symbolism. "Some people," she says, "prefer to cling to the fantasy of the past rather than facing the reality of the present." (Frank Herrmann from Charlottesville, August 7th, 2017)