In August 1984 I matriculated at the University of Virginia Law School in Charlottesville, where I would live for the next three years. Coming from California, I remember being both amused and mildly scandalized by my first encounter with the “Cult of the Lost Cause.” The first shock came at seeing the memorials in the center of town. “Lest we forget” was carved in granite under Robert E. Lee’s equestrian statue.
Meeting authentic Southerners for the first time gave me a taste of their pride of heritage that I had never encountered in California. I remember my new friend from Louisiana insisting adamantly that the South had a legal right to secede from the Union. It seemed a curious point to be so passionate about, but I didn’t argue. Then later in class, one student asked about a law case from the “Civil War era.” At hearing this question, the professor stopped writing on the chalkboard and turned around with an affronted look and said: “Sir, are you referring to the War of Northern Aggression?” The professor knew he was being cheeky, but he was not joking. These Southerners at UVA Law School were certainly not racists, but their defiant pride placed them in subtle complicity with the antebellum South’s legacy of slavery and rebellion.
Feeling proud of being a Southerner is certainly not bad, in and of itself. Yet as our culture has evolved, we have come to the point where defiant Southern pride must be better moderated by a sense of reflective remorse. Memorials to the Confederacy have always been morally questionable, but now that they have become a lightning rod for the most vicious elements of our society, their place in our public squares and shared civic spaces needs to be reconsidered. Going forward, the best purpose most of these public monuments can serve is through their symbolic removal. Or at the very least, where they remain on display at politically significant locations they could be exhibited in a very different (and more contrite) situational context. These changes will be an important symbolic, and hopefully historically final, defeat of everything the Confederacy stood for, including the ugly racism that is its unavoidable legacy.