The recent remark by White House chief of staff John Kelly (pictured) on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show reopened a divide so deep in this country that I am reminded of American novelist William Faulkner’s quote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Kelly, sounding like a die-hard Lost Cause apologist with a reconciliationist spin, told the conservative media television host that he viewed Confederate general Robert E. Lee as “an honorable man” and that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”
To the surprise of many, myself included, Kelly’s remark eerily echoed Trump’s repugnant “blame on both sides” comment about the Charlottesville mayhem that took place this summer. The false equivalence of Trump’s remark blaming “many sides” rendered the perpetrators as victims, too. And, by condemning counterprotesters similarly as he did white supremacists and swastika-wielding neo-Nazis at the rally, Trump suggests both groups are at fault, and one is equally in the wrong as the other.
Kelly’s remark, however, is a false equivalence too. And in the most odious way because it minimizes the moral turpitude of the Confederacy’s dogged and “by any means necessary” way for the continuation of chattel slavery as a central pillar to their Southern way of life.
The moral relativism of Kelly’s statement suggests there’s no absolute truth, only the truths that a particular individual or culture upholds. But Kelly is wrong. Slavery is America’s original sin; many of our venerated founding fathers were wealthy slaveholders. Slavery was a brutal history of deliberately debasing and dehumanizing black people, and it was ruthlessly done by means human trafficking, sexual exploration, medical experimentation all at the expense of maintaining white supremacy. And it’s a history this country at best has not taken seriously and at worse isn’t accurately known.
For example, in commemorating the start of Black History Month this year, President Trump hosted a “listening session” at the White House that left listeners scratching their heads wondering if he knew Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist, died in 1895, and 2018 will be the bicentennial of his birth.
Expecting then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer to clarify what Trump meant regarding his comment on Douglass, Spicer, however, made it clear he too didn't quite know if Douglass is dead.
“I think he [Trump] wants to highlight the contributions he has made. And I think through a lot of the actions and statements he’s going to make, I think that the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.”
Kelly’s comment is straight-out of the Lost Cause Civil War propaganda machine. The Lost Cause movement immediately following the end of Civil War romanticizes the South’s loss, depicting its fallen Confederate soldiers as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry and honor, slavery as a benevolent form of charity and government handout, and the secession as a necessary evil in response to the North’s economic aggression to demolish its primary means of revenue-enslaved Africans. This image has been cinematically promulgated in blockbuster hits like Birth of a Nation (1916), Gone With the Wind (1939), and Cold Mountain (2003), to name a few.
Also, Kelly is incorrect in stating that a lack of compromise resulted in the Civil War. As a matter of fact, the many concessions made had to do with enslaved Africans. For examples, the 1787 Three-Fifths Compromise declared my ancestors three-fifths of a person in Southern states in order to determine the total population of residents in for legislative and tax purposes. The 1820 Missouri Compromise maintained the balance between slave and free states whereby Maine was admitted as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, and, slavery prohibited in the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36-30 parallel. In 1863, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a compromise too. Whereas the document ceased the expansion of slavery but it didn’t free all slaves; rather, it imposed limits to its expansion stating there was "no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the States where it exists."
If Kelly knew his Civil War history, he would know that Robert E. Lee was not a supporter of the Lost Cause mythology. When the war ended Lee refused to be buried in his Confederate uniform and asked followers to put their flags away because displaying them as a form of defiance would be an act of treason. Similarly, Robert E. Lee V, the great-great-grandson, made a similar request about the statues. "If it can avoid any days like this past Saturday in Charlottesville, then take them down today," he told The Washington Post in August.
White Americans must take ownership of their history to not only help along my healing from the wounds of Civil War, but theirs too.
REVEREND IRENE MONROE does a weekly Monday segment, “All Revved Up!” on Boston Public Radio and is a weekly Friday TV commentator on New England Channel NEWS. She’s a theologian and religion columnist.