Email #280: “ignoring history”?

Although you did not respond to my letter asking for your position on the public display of Confederate statues, another of your constituents shared on Facebook the form letter you sent to her.

You expressed “concerns about ignoring history by their removal” and likened the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to take down its Lee statue to the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984. You said “when the government removes facts and history from the past, citizens of today and the future cannot learn the vital lessons they would have otherwise imparted.” You also encouraged “those advocating for the removal of Confederacy related items to find appropriate ways to educate all Americans.”

I agree that these statues are an excellent opportunity for education that we should all embrace, and so let me share with you the historical context of the statue of Lee that was the literal center point of the white supremacist rally last month.

The statue was commissioned by Paul McIntire in 1917 after he purchased and donated the property for what he named Lee Park. This was during the rise of the second KKK and the white supremacist movement of eugenics across the U.S. Although the Klan is most often recalled as a terrorist organization limited to the South during the Reconstruction period, it was reformed nationally in 1915 after the widely acclaimed blockbuster film The Birth of a Nation adapted the 1905 novel The Clansman, a melodramatic best-seller that portrayed the KKK as the righteous and heroic protectors of the South from the villainy of “Negro Rule.” This was a standard interpretation of history during the first decades of the 20th century. Staunton-born President Woodrow Wilson was one of the majority of Americans who agreed. After a special screening of The Birth of a Nation in the White House, Wilson commented: “it is all so terribly true.”

When the Lee statue was finally erected in 1924, the KKK controlled a majority of delegates in the Democratic National Convention. The Convention was held in New York city that year, and after the party defeated a platform resolution that would have condemned Klan violence, thousands of KKK members, including Convention delegates, held a celebratory rally in New Jersey. The following year, 30,000 Klan members marched in full regalia in Washington DC. National membership was estimated well over three million.

The popularity of the Klan reflected the wider white nationalism of eugenics, which in the pre-DNA science of genetics argued for the hereditary superiority of northern Europeans. Following the advice of the Carnegie Institute, the Rockefeller Foundation, and other eugenics advocates, federal and state governments attempted to protect white bloodlines through immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, and forced sterilization. Madison Grant’s white supremacist treatise The Passing of the Great Race became a national best-seller in 1916, calling for the sterilization of “worthless race types.” President Theodore Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler both praised the book. Hitler also said Germany needed to model itself on the U.S., especially California and Virginia, the leading states in the eugenics movement.

In May 1924, five days after the Lee statue was erected, President Coolidge signed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, drastically reducing the immigration of non-Anglo Saxons and excluding Asians entirely. Coolidge explained: “America must be kept American. Biological laws show¼that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.” Two months earlier, the Virginia Legislature passed The Racial Integrity Act, joining twenty-eight other states in barring marriage between whites and non-whites.  The Virginia Sterilization Act passed on the same day, targeting African Americans and mixed-race “mongrels.”

The 1924 president of your alma mater and my employer, Washington and Lee University, presented the Lee statue at its public unveiling—an event run by the local chapter of the Confederate Veterans, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, organizations dedicated to the revisionist history of the Civil War and Reconstruction supported by the KKK and the wider eugenics movement. That statue, which the Charlottesville city website describes as “quieter but more dignified and powerful” than the original design which emphasized Lee’s “vitality,” venerates rather than records its selective interpretation of history.

This is the history lesson surrounding Charlottesville’s statue of Lee. Assuming that you were merely ignorant of these facts when you likened the Charlottesville City Council to 1984’s Ministry of Truth, I hope you will reconsider your statement. The continuing display of the Lee statue supports the Orwellian rewriting of history accomplished by white supremacists a century ago.

Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an associate professor at W&L University, comics editor of Shenandoah, and series editor of Bloomsbury Critical Guides in Comics Studies. He has published two novels: School for Tricksters (SMU 2011) and Pretend I’m Not Here (HarperCollins 2002); and six books of scholarship: On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa 2015), Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury 2017), Superhero Thought Experiments (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Iowa 2019), Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Routledge 2020), Creating Comics (with Leigh Ann Beavers, Bloomsbury 2021), and The Comics Form (Bloomsbury forthcoming). His visual work appears in Ilanot Review, North American Review, Aquifer, and other journals.

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