Updated: Jan 16
In 2021, a Roanoke, Virginia judge ordered a civil war statue to be moved. The judge’s reasoning can be found in the following article:
I was raised in the south. I grew up in the former Capital of the Confederacy, Richmond Virginia. As such, my Civil War perspective is nuanced and has evolved. This article is about the path taken to reach my belief about Civil War statues. First and foremost, I am not asking you to change your mind. We all have reasons for our beliefs. Beliefs can be slow to change and are generally a hard-to-separate mixture of emotion, habit, and facts. [i] I offer my perspective in case helpful to anyone open to alternative views.
I start with why people would want Civil War statues in the first place. The Civil War was tremendously devastating, especially for Americans in the south. More Americans died in the Civil War than in all other wars. The people of the south want to know their losses meant something, beyond losing the war on the battlefield. The statues are a reminder of their history, a history of perseverance, of struggle, and represent their great enthusiasms. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" [ii] is a song capturing the pride and emotion of the south. Next is an emblematic lyric:
Now I don't mind choppin' wood
And I don't care if the money's no good
Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest
But they should never have taken the very best
I get it. Richmond, Virginia is home to Monument Avenue in and around the Fan District of Richmond. The civil war statues found on Monument Avenue were impressive. As a child, I certainly understood how native white Richmonders felt about them. But, it was only as an adult, and only after I unwound my emotion and habits, did I come to see them as unworthy of a country founded on freedom. I appreciate reasonable people may disagree with my "Civil War statues are unworthy" belief. And that is ok. Because reasonable people do disagree, it causes me to inspect my reasoning and clarify my beliefs. I mostly do this by actively isolating facts and challenging my habits and emotions. Further in this article, I offer a related analogy as an argument for why Civil War statues should be removed. But first, some background on Roanoke and Judge Dorsey’s ruling.
Roanoke - at history’s crossroad
Roanoke is great. I have lived there before and regularly go to a Roanoke area natural wonder called Smith Mountain Lake. The Roanoke area is probably best known for Virginia Tech. VT is a top public university in a state higher education system known for many great colleges and universities. The Roanoke area is beautiful, hosting a segment of the Appalachian Trail and known for its outdoor sports.
On-point for this article is the Roanoke area’s rich history. A history that includes:
Appomattox is a little over an hour's drive from downtown Roanoke. This is the location where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant and ended the Civil War.
On your drive from Roanoke to Appomattox, you will pass by Dr. Booker T. Washington’s home and National Monument where he was born into slavery. Dr. Washington became a noted educator, orator, author, advisor to U.S. presidents, and a driving force behind the Tuskegee Institute of Alabama.
Bedford, Virginia is a small community nestled in the Roanoke area. Bedford is the home of the National D-Day Memorial. The memorial is a celebration of the men and women that sacrificed so much to liberate the world from Nazi tyranny. The town of Bedford, proportionally, lost more young men during the Normandy Invasion than any other community in America. Alex Kershaw’s inspiring book called The Bedford Boys chronicles this important part of history.
Judge Dorsey’s Ruling Background
In a Southern town, a Southern Judge has ordered the removal of a Confederate statue on property adjacent to the Roanoke, Virginia County Courthouse. This judge is a born and bred Southerner who writes in his letter to the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors, is proud of his southern heritage. He grew up living and working on his grandfather’s farm in Salem, VA, very close to Roanoke. He went to southern schools and was appointed to the bench by a Republican-majority General Assembly. He is white. He also happens to be something of a Renaissance man, voraciously reading anything he can get his hands on, and amongst other talents, he can weld and play the bagpipes.
Judge Dorsey‘s confederate statue position is likely unpopular with many of his neighbors. His letter, as published on The Roanoke Times’ website, explains his position in detail.
The case for removing Civil War statues - An analogy comparing Civil War and World War II statues
I tend to reason in terms of straightforward analogies. Connecting thematically related situations but those separated by time or place can be very instructive. Because Roanoke has such a strong connection to the Civil War and World War II history, this particular analogy seems fitting. Analogies help us learn from history. Winston Churchill said:
“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”
Analogies help take a historical “outside-in” perspective on difficult questions. Especially questions that are challenging to separate individual emotion and habit from a collective, inclusive bigger picture involving all those impacted. Analogies help us appropriately adapt our innate tribal nature.
Analogy background: This analogy compares a Jewish perspective to an African-American perspective. For full disclosure, I am neither Black or Jewish. However, this is an empathetic analogy. As a racial and religious outsider, I am empathizing with those of other races and religions. “Empathy” is a reasoning standard recognized by most world religions as “The Golden Rule.” => “Treat others as you would like others to treat you.”
World War II => Approximately 6 million Jews died by Nazi hands. It makes sense statues celebrating political and military leaders dedicated to the Third Reich are not allowed. If statues honoring Hitler, Goebels, Himmler, Hess, Goering, or others were erected, among others, I'm sure the Jewish people would find them extraordinarily offensive. Statues would send the wrong message about the government's position on The Holocaust. Statues would also be counter to local citizens’ contributions, like the great contributions of The Bedford Boys.
Civil War => Upwards of 2.4 million African slaves died en route to America on slave ships and many died in bondage. It would seem statues celebrating political and military leaders dedicated to defending the "state's rights" to enslavement should not be allowed. The Civil War military and political leaders included Calhoun, Davis, Stephens, Lee, Jackson, Stuart, and others. I'm sure African-American people, among others, find celebratory statues extraordinarily offensive. Statues send the wrong message about the government's position on slavery. Statues would also be counter to local citizens’ contributions, like the great contributions of Dr. Washington.
To close the loop on empathy, I could not imagine celebratory statues being erected celebrating the widespread enslavement and destruction of my family or ancestors. I believe Jewish, African American, and many other people would agree, just because something is in our history, doesn’t mean it should be celebrated with publicly supported statues. To be clear, many nuances inform the Civil War and World War II. A good analogy doesn’t have to be inclusive of all details, only internally consistent as to significant factors or outcomes.
For the purpose of eliminating any doubt as to the purpose of the southern confederacy, please read Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens’, Cornerstone Speech. He delivered this speech in 1861, just before the Civil War began. Be forewarned, it is hard to stomach. Here is an excerpt:
When my children were growing up, they went to a Virginia public elementary school whose motivational slogan was "Do The Right Thing When Nobody Is Looking." It was a helpful slogan that challenged the young students to be on their best behavior, even when a teacher is not around. Judge Dorsey has done something much more challenging. Judge Dorsey "Did The Right Thing When Everyone Is Looking." While we have more ground to cover and more social justice to achieve, Roanoke and Judge Dorsey have provided a courageous example.
Thanks to Ben Purser for bringing Judge Dorsey’s ruling to my attention.
[i] For a comprehensive review of how we change our mind, including approaches, key factors, psychology, and examples; please see our article Changing Our Mind.
[ii] Robertson, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Released by The Band on their self-title album, 1969