The first time I ever saw a statue of Robert E. Lee was in New Orleans, long ago when I was in the fifth grade. It was Mardi Gras and we had come from our small Mississippi hometown to celebrate this historical day in the big city.
Hundreds were jammed in the shadow of the general on his horse. I was wearing one of my favorite Christmas gifts, a light blue Eisenhower jacket, named, of course, for a living general who represented the best of a united America, unlike the man on the horse.
I was enthralled by the music, the revelers, the beads I could snatch from the air, the pure essence of this celebration that rests in the soul of the Crescent City. And then my happy day came to an end. An intoxicated celebrant had painted parts of his body and he brushed against me. My cherished jacket was no longer fit to be cherished.
This year, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu led the effort to remove Lee’s statue, with those of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Gen. P.G. T. Beauregard. These statues, he said, “were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal – through monuments and through other means – to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.”
“It begs the questions,” he added, “why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame ... all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans. So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission. There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.”
Now, another Lee statue is being moved, and as we all know, the city of Charlottesville has been scarred with the violence triggered by neo-Nazis, KKK members and white supremacists. We know that President Donald Trump was tardy calling it what it was. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” Many sides?
More than a day later and a tide of criticisms from across the political spectrum, Trump said what he should have said: “Racism is evil.” In between he found time to tweet about one of his business advisors, Merck CEO Kenneth C. Frazier, who had resigned from the president’s manufacturing council as a “matter of personal conscience” after Trump’s initial remarks: “Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!”
Words matter, Mr. President. They can hurt or heal, and hurt is way ahead in your collection.
If you need lessons on what to say, ask U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. After the Charleston nine were murdered in a racist attack, Haley, then South Carolina governor, joined the fight to move the Confederate flag from the Capitol.
“I think the more important part is it should have never been there,” she told CNN. “These grounds are a place that everybody should feel a part of. What I realized now more than ever is people were driving by and felt hurt and pain. No one should feel pain.”
It’s not too late to learn. But, on second thought, it probably is.
Gregory Favre is a former Sacramento Bee executive editor and McClatchy vice president of news. firstname.lastname@example.org