On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which changed the legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans from slave to free. While it was signed in the midst of the split and struggle of the United States Civil War, the legislation did nothing to change the hearts of Southerners who persisted in their rebellion against the Union. The Civil War continued for another nearly 3 years until Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865.
Slavery, by legislation, had been vanquished, but racism continued.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Jim Crow laws were put into place, mandating racial segregation in public in the states that had formerly comprised the Confederate States of America. These laws remained in place until the 1950s when the groundbreaking and landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. the Board of Education was passed in 1954.
Ten years later, the Civil Rights act of 1964 was passed, followed a year later by the Voting Rights Act. It took one hundred years from the end of the Civil War to legally vanquish what had been put in place by those who had insisted that black and brown people were less than and needed to be treated as such.
Racism, by legislation, had been vanquished, but the hearts of men are rarely changed with the simple passing of laws.
Construction on the Stonewall Jackson monument in Richmond, Virginia began with the laying of the cornerstone on June 3, 1915, during the period which had been defined by the Jim Crow laws which had sought to keep black and brown men and women confined, constrained, and restricted by law. The statue was officially unveiled on October 11, 1919.
For over one hundred years, the statue stood on Monument Avenue in Richmond, an avenue dedicated mostly to Confederate personalities, one of many lingering reminders that regardless of the legislation passed and the progression of certain aspects of our society, there still remained some who chose not to see equality as something to be achieved and attained by everyone, no matter what the founding documents of our country might say.
On July 1, 2020, by order of Mayor Stoney, the Stonewall Jackson monument was removed from its pedestal. In the days and weeks following, additional monuments were removed along that same stretch of road on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.
As the Jackson monument came down, live news broadcast the events into homes across the country and the interwebs allowed for a global participation of the deconstruction that was taking place. As the cloudy skies gave way to periods of heavy rain, the crowd of onlookers remained committed to their stance of waiting until the monument was finally removed. As the last connections of the statue to its base were removed, the statue was lifted by a crane to the cheers of onlookers, both black and white, as the rain poured down.
Once again, legislation had removed something that had been offensive and oppressive.
As I watched the live broadcast on my computer, I was reminded of the events of the more than 150 years since the end of the Civil War, I couldn’t help but ask myself the question, “Now what?” Laws were passed, statues were removed, but we still struggled with the evil that lurks within the hearts of men.
Over the last few years, I’ve worked hard to fill the gaps of history that were a result of my education. I grew up in privilege in a town where few minorities lived. The only black and brown students at my school were ones who had been part of a program through a local church that housed these students for the year, removing them from their urban settings in New York City to essentially provide them what I can only assume would be labeled a “better education.”
I refuse to stoop to the level of so many who claim that the removal of statues means the removal of history. I spent more than 30 years of my life having never seen a confederate statue and somehow or another, I was still educated and familiar with the history of our country. If history and our understanding of it is simply promulgated by statues, then most of us have wasted our time and efforts in the classroom.
But what happens after the laws are passed, after the statues come down? What do we do now?
My fear is that too many white folks will see this as the end of the journey, a completion of sorts, that allows them to put their care and concern away until another powderkeg moment occurs and we all rally or protest or demonstrate. That somehow the removal of the symbols of racism signifies the removal of the ideology that put those symbols there to begin with.
Instead, I believe that we need to see this as the beginning of our own journey. Or the convergence of our journey, an on-ramp of sorts, with the journeys of black and brown men and women who have been on this journey their entire lives. Just because we’re finally informed or woke doesn’t mean that we have somehow arrived, especially if we don’t do anything with what has woken us.
A long obedience in the same direction. That’s the way that Eugene Peterson describes the journey of faith. It’s a phrase that can easily describe so many of the journeys in our lives and I think that it well describes this journey too. Now begins the arduous and somewhat intricate work of moving forward. It isn’t glamorous, it isn’t easy, but I’m pretty sure it pales in comparison to the journey that our black and brown brothers and sisters have been on for decades.
Are we reading? Are we being educated? Are we stretching ourselves and letting ourselves be stretched by others in the context of relationships? Are we seeking relationships that we have never had before? Are we journeying along with others who are different than we are?
The persistent work required for the way forward is not sexy or trendy, it’s difficult. There will be more setbacks. There will be frustrations. There will be pain. There will be awkwardness. But if we expect a walk in the park, we’d best simply stick to cheering for the statues as they come down and then go back to our comfortable and insulated lives.
I have a few pastor friends who have already shared with me the fallout that they have experienced as they have stood their ground on racial issues, holding to the ideology that Black lives do matter, and everyone really IS equal regardless of their skin color. They have braved the accusations and vitriol that have been hurled at them and have continued to press on. I am grateful to associate myself with these friends who are committed to the long haul, not just the moment.
The task seems overwhelming, but the best way to eat an elephant, as the adage says, is one bite at a time. What bites can you take? Those bites can be small, but progress is progress. We can’t change the hearts of others, but we can certainly allow for our hearts to be changed. Now is the time to be the change that you want to see in the world.