When Gov. Paul LePage and others call for preserving Confederate monuments so we don’t forget our nation’s history, they seem to engage in some of the very forgetting that is at the heart of racial injustice in this country.

For starters, tearing down monuments to Robert E. Lee will not lead to tearing down monuments to George Washington. Lee and Washington both enslaved African Americans, and we should never forget that injustice. But Washington fought for a country based on the principles of equality. His vision was incomplete, but it inspires our continuing efforts to achieve equality for all. Lee, on the other hand, fought to destroy that nation and deny its principles.

Although our nation is founded on the principle that all people are created equal, all monuments are not. We build — and judge — our monuments according to our values. The values of Confederate monuments are the values of racial segregation. Whites erected most of their monuments to the Confederacy during two periods. The first, which includes the Lee monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, was from about 1900 to 1930. These monuments reinforced new Jim Crow legislation, a racial segregation enforced by the terrorism of the lynch mob and abetted by the indifference of the federal government.

The second wave crested during the 1950s and 1960s, when white supremacists resisted the march of Civil Rights. Their efforts were not limited to the South. In 1952 the United Daughters of the Confederacy gave a plaque to the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Portland, Maine, to commemorate the visit of eventual Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

LePage claims that Confederate monuments help us remember a dark past. True, but they also help us forget it. Notice that neither he nor any other defender of Confederate memorials asks about memorials to the millions who were enslaved or the thousands who were lynched.

The fact is that white Americans in particular still struggle to remember this country’s painful past with honesty. I see the contradictions every day. Bates College, where I teach history, is proud to celebrate its radical abolitionist founder Oren Cheney. It is much less certain how to remember its benefactor, Benjamin Bates, whose fortune grew from buying, weaving and selling slave-grown cotton.

These blind spots have consequences. When we see more fully the pain of America’s racial injustices, we understand why LePage’s efforts to blame “both sides” for the horrible violence in Charlottesville ring so false. Two sides did fight in the streets of Charlottesville, but only one side imagines a nation defined by the violent oppression of others. Only one side arrived toting guns. They feel entitled to do these things because they always have.

Addressing our problems with racism and violence requires us to remember the deep roots of both. That does not mean that we dismiss George Washington or demolish Bates College. We should continue to celebrate the freedom and equality that they promoted. However, we must also honor the disproportionately high price that blacks and other minorities paid for those ideals.

Gov. LePage fears that we will forget the past if we take down a statue of Lee. I think we will remember it better. Instead of commemorating Lee and other promoters of racism, let’s honor instead those who spoke powerfully for equality while also attacking white supremacy. We might remember, for instance, those such as anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells. Even as an African American woman in the Jim Crow South, she had the courage to oppose the violence of Jim Crow with her pen. She explained, “The way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them.”

A fuller history illuminated by truth can help us recognize — and address — the challenges of our past as we continue to seek a more just future.

Joseph Hall is an associated professor of history at Bates College. He lives in Auburn.

Joseph Hall

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