Let’s not get fooled on the Confederate memorials question in Dallas. It’s easy to do. It’s worse than a who’s-on-first routine. This one is more like where-is-first?
What may camouflage the real controversy more than anything else, especially for people who are outside the city looking in, is the recruitment of the city’s four African-American City Council members to the side of the debate that’s soft on the Confederacy. And let’s be clear: One side is soft. The other is not.
The side of the city that’s soft on keeping the Confederate monuments would like for everybody, especially outsiders, to see the debate we’re having here as a kind of quibbling about process among people who really agree on the fundamental question. But that’s not at all what this is. Not so far.
The fundamental question is not statues. It’s slavery. As of now, the soft side is still turning itself inside out to avoid saying what it believes about slavery.
The enlistment of the black Dallas council members on the soft side will be completely beyond the powers of comprehension of most people looking in from outside. It's a long story, going all the way back to the 1950s, too long to tell here.
That’s why, if anybody outside Dallas even pays attention, they’ll probably conclude that our debate on the memorials has got to be some kind of nitpicking spat. It’s not. Not at all. Both sides may appear on the surface to agree that something or other needs to be done with or about our Confederate memorials. But that’s not what this is about.
Most of the memorials in Dallas, like most of those throughout the country, went up a good half-century after the Civil War with the aim of retroactively defending slavery. Michael L. Williams, a conservative Republican and the first African-American in Texas to win election to a statewide office (Railroad Commission in 2000), recently wrote an incisive essay on this question for the opinion pages of The Dallas Morning News.
In his piece, Williams quoted from a plaque now affixed to the walls of the state Capitol with the skin-crawling, creepy title of “Children of the Confederacy Creed.” It says, among other things, that "the war between the states was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”
Williams says in his essay: “Let's be honest. That's a lie.”
That lie, that the Civil War was not about slavery, is a fundamental pillar of an even more horrendous lie — that there was not anything fundamentally wrong with slavery or that somehow slavery could have been modified or ameliorated to make it more palatable to history. That’s what the statue and memorial debate is about. The debate is not fundamentally about the physical objects. It’s about American society, a century and a half after a horrific, fratricidal war, stepping up and declaring at long last that slavery was fundamentally and inextricably evil.
Compare the language of the two competing declarations before the Dallas City Council (both below). The first is signed by five City Council members who want the council first to condemn the memorials and condemn slavery, then decide what to do with the stuff. Here is part of the first resolution:
“Whereas African Americans have been subjected to over 400 years of abuse in America including some of the most brutal physical, mental, and emotional abuse ever suffered in human history, and whereas the Confederacy and its military fought to preserve slavery …
“Now, Therefore, be it resolved by the City Council of the city of Dallas that the display of Confederate monuments and the naming of public places for prominent Confederates is against the public policy of the City of Dallas and is condemned.”
The resolution goes to on to prescribe a process for deciding what to do with the dead statues. But it relegates that question almost to a footnote, and, after all, once we have declared the memorials to be evil, how big a deal is storing them? That’s only a tough decision if you still care.
Civil rights activist John Fullinwider told me in an email last week: “A reporter asked me Saturday, ‘Do you think the statues should go to a museum?’ ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘How about the Osama bin Laden museum in the Pacific Ocean?’ It didn't make the nightly news.”
But no kidding. How is storage a big question? Yet take a look at the competing memorandum from Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings — the one the black Council Members agreed to after some of them signed and withdrew their signatures from the tougher resolution quoted above.
The mayor’s memorandum calls for the creation of a “citizen body” that will “consult with the Cultural Affairs Commission consistent with our policy regarding the deaccessioning of public art.”
Sorry to be a pedant, but there is no verb, to accession, so there is no verb, to de-accession, and there definitely is no verb, to deaccession, which sounds like de-deaconing, which actually does sound like something the Episcopal church might do … but what in the hell are we even talking even talking about? “Deaccessioning of public art”? Talk about euphemism!
The rest of the mayor’s memo includes references to “relevant stakeholders”; identifying “the process, cost and timeline for actions warranted from citizen input”; and identifying “the process, cost and timeline for compliance with Landmark, Dallas Historical protection and other procedural requirements.” So process, cost and timeline are, as our president might say, VERY BIG!
The great end product of all this looking at cost and timeline, slated to take a couple of months to complete, is for the public body to “make a recommendation to the Cultural Affairs Commission.” But a recommendation about what? Slavery? Thumbs up, thumbs down?
Listen, I am not the one making this absurd. I am trying to illuminate the absolute absurdity of the mayor’s memorandum, which tries to talk its way all around the elephant by using some kind of semiliterate corporate-speak to insulate itself from any hot contact with the real issue.
The idea of delay is an attempt at avoidance and insulation. It transparently expresses the hope that this will all calm down if we just stall it for a while. But that raises an important question: Why do we want this to die down?
Why shouldn’t we look forward to ridding ourselves of these last excrescences of white supremacy? Why shouldn’t we hope this means we are at long last emerging from the dank recesses of racism? Why isn’t the anti-Confederate memorial movement the greatest thing since sliced bread?
The association of the Dallas black City Council members with the mayor’s attempt at obfuscation is deeply saddening. It expresses the long and tragic isolation of old South Dallas from the national civil rights movement, historically and philosophically. It suggests a fear of engaging historical slavery directly — a shame.
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What lies ahead in this process is not shame. It’s not anger or fear. What lies at the end of this road is the realization that the world is populated by human beings and that we are equal and wonderful in our humanity. Instead of a world where we eye each other with fear and skepticism, wouldn’t the world be a happier and more welcoming place if we could all look at each and wonder if we are cousins? Why do you think people in East Texas get along so well?
That’s what this debate before the City Council is about. It’s not quibbling. As you-know-who might say, it’s HUGE.