The tragedy of Hurricane
Katrina is the most overwhelming picture among a myriad of realities
that define blacks' relative powerlessness in America. On the other
end of the seriousness scale is the slap in the face to southern
blacks whose local governments continue to fund public tributes
to confederate leaders of the Civil War who ruthlessly plundered
lives in their fight to keep blacks enslaved. Memphis, with a 62
percent African-American population and home to the highest proportion
of metropolitan blacks in the nation, now joins other southern
cities in a bitterly divided battle over whether the city should
continue funding parks and monuments honoring the confederacy and
The conflict pits a determined group of black leaders and
activists fighting to change the parks, against the city's
black Mayor Willie Herenton, the Sons of Confederate Veterans,
their sympathizers and an assortment of white supremacists.
Sitting silently on their hands in this acrimonious controversy
are Memphis' corporate and religious leaders, and moderate
blacks who say leave the parks as they are.
The controversy arose last spring when a quasi-governmental
group, the Memphis Center City Commission, created a study
committee to assess whether the city should continue to maintain
public confederacy tributes. The parks at issue are Nathan
Bedford Forrest, Jefferson Davis, and Confederate Parks, all
located downtown and at the city's doorstep. Forrest was a
notorious slave trader, Civil War General and first Grand Wizard
of the Ku Klux Klan. Davis was President of the Confederacy
and jailed for two years after the war.
Forrest and his wife's remains were disinterred
from the family burial plot in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis.
Forrest had chosen
that final resting place in his will, expressing a desire to
rest eternally among the scores of confederate veterans buried
at Elmwood. He and his wife were reburied in the public park
in 1905 in a celebration attended by thousands of white Memphians.
Today, Forrest Park is the site of an annual celebration by
the Sons of Confederate Veterans. This year’s celebration was
scheduled to feature a minstrel show, but the event was abruptly
cancelled when the media learned of it.
To properly understand the significance
of these Confederate tributes, one must consider these monuments
in the context
of the social attitudes and tolerances during the times they
were put in place. The first of these memorials was dedicated
in 1899; thirty-four years after the South lost the Civil War.
The last was put up in 1930. During these times, white men
ruled Memphis, racism was open and rampant, and blacks’ input
was considered insignificant at best and insolence punishable
by death at worst.
The confederate parks controversy has special meaning in Memphis.
Black Memphians have for the most part not been as aggressive
as in other cities in challenging the largely white, affluent
power structure. Raising the consciousness level to where enough
blacks can grasp the significance of this battle has been a
Movements for social change rarely start with the support
of the overall majority, or even with the support of the majority
of those for whom the movement was organized to help. In the
sixties the efforts of students and other anti-segregation
activists were dismissed by many blacks and openly criticized
by black leaders and preachers.
Now the children of those critics and cynics enjoy the fruits
of the civil rights struggles of the few, as they bask obliviously
complacent in their newfound freedoms, comfortable homes, political
positions and nice paying jobs.
The park struggle in Memphis has been met
with a similar 1960’s
style cynicism and hostility from many negroes, afraid of rocking
the boat or having anyone else rock it. They say, "I've
got more important things to do." At the same time they
retreat from any other tough challenge that may be controversial
or rub those in power the wrong way.
And even if they were working on some other
project, their one-dimensionality would not justify deriding
those who are trying to remove these confederate relics of
the past. The "unimportant" issue of the parks has
generated numerous public statements, a mayoral press conference,
two government legal opinions, and two full-page newspaper
advertisements attacking the effort to remove the symbols.
The issue is important enough to the white supremacist Council
of Concerned Citizens’ that they have highlighted it on their
racially-charged website. The racist infiltrated Sons of Conservative
Veterans made a national pledge of an initial ten thousand
dollars to the fight to preserve the park symbols in Memphis.
Outside of Memphis the NAACP has been a leader in the fight
to remove confederate symbols and flags. NAACP National Chairman
Julian Bond likened the argument that the citizens of Memphis
have more important issues to deal with to the charge during
the civil rights movement that, instead of fighting to eat
next to whites in restaurants, blacks should focus on the more
important issue of earning money to pay for the food.
By contrast, the Memphis NAACP announced
its "resentment" towards
Reverend Al Sharpton’s appearance in Memphis to lend his voice
for removal of these monuments. And in a blast in the Memphis
newspaper, black Mayor Herenton indignantly stated, "[t]he
fact that Rev. Al Sharpton has been invited to Memphis serves
no useful purpose as far as I'm concerned. All Sharpton can
do is come and run his mouth... As mayor, I don't give a damn
about Al Sharpton."
Dr. Martin Luther King addressed this type attack on civil
rights leaders coming from outside to help in his Letter from
a Birmingham Jail:
"I cannot sit idly in Atlanta and
not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.... Whatever
directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford
to live with the narrow, provincial 'outside agitator' idea.
Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered
an outsider anywhere within its bounds."
What appears to frighten people
is not that the parks issues is not important, but rather that
keeping these parks
and monuments is ‘too important’ to the Neo-Confederates and Rebel
flag wavers for whom the cause of the Confederacy is still dear
to their hearts. The controversy has generated insulting and malicious
sentiments in public meetings and in steady streams of letters
to the morning newspaper.
The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists
have threatened violent action in Memphis if the parks are
altered. This has
intimidated key local leaders who worry that this maliciousness
will give the city a black eye in other parts of the country.
So they claim the issue is "raciallly divisive."
Dr. King addressed a similar "racially divisive" criticism
in his Birmingham letter:
"We merely bring to the surface the
hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in
the open, where it can
be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured
so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its
ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light. Injustice
must be exposed with all the tension its exposure creates,
to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion,
before it can be cured.”
Today many of our cities are racial powder kegs ready to explode
with the most random incident. These internalized tensions are
nurtured by the timidity and failure of black leaders to push
affirmative remedies, which they fear may draw disfavor among
powerful segments of the white community.
That so many citizens of all colors in Memphis want to pretend
that there is no racial problem makes things even worse. Black
Memphians have, for the most part, the poorest education, worst
healthcare and the least economic independence in a state which
is itself amongst the poorest in the country.
The racial underpinnings of these problems are documented in
Ira Katznelson's new book, When Affirmative Action Was White.
The book examines how powerful southern Congressmen incorporated
the framework for racial discrimination into a number of the
important federal social programs of the 1930’s and 40’s, including
the G.I. Bill of Rights. By design, these programs excluded agricultural
and domestic workers from the right to receive minimum wage.
Southern officials were given the authority to unfairly deny
blacks housing and business loans and access to more competitive
colleges and universities. Blacks were systematically channeled
into low paying jobs rather than given an opportunity to participate
in federal job training programs for skilled vocational and technical
The fear of dealing with the hostile racial attitudes of those
that insist on keeping these Confederate monuments is a reflection
of the docile attitude that too many black Memphians have. The
courage of blacks to stand up in the confederate fight is a Rite
of Passage. Al Sharpton put it succinctly:
"The thing that offends me the most is people trying
to act as though it is acceptable that, anywhere in this nation,
that public property can be used to glorify and sanitize people
that were part of a movement that was based on racism and murder.
We cannot tell our kids to stop participating in self degrading
stuff and to stop desecrating our community but tell them it’s
alright for the public park to have statues of people that
absolutely was [sic] for the desecration of our people."
Black organizations and leaders in other parts of the south
have stepped forward to retire the symbols that celebrate and
honor the Confederacy. It didn't take the new black mayor of
Selma, Alabama long to remove a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest
from public land to a cemetery. Many progressive southern cities
do not have confederate parks and rebel monuments. If blacks
in Memphis can't confront the most elemental insult by stopping
this publicly sponsored glorification of the confederacy, they
are not likely to have the backbone to eyeball the white man
with even more serious challenges.
The Honorable D’Army Bailey is an activist,
politician, attorney, writer, columnist and actor who became
a jurist in
1990, when he was elected Circuit Court Judge in Tennessee's
30th Judicial District. Reelected in 1998, Judge Bailey continues
to devote himself to the fight for civil rights. Bailey is
an author, guest speaker for universities and civic organizations,
and has been seen in the films The People vs. Larry Flynt,
How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Mystery Train.