December 3, 2017

Mariano: Traveling through the Confederacy

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Wikimedia Commons / Miranda Pederson [public domain]

Images of the Confederacy ought to be confined to museums, Mariano says.

By comparison with much of the nation, Massachusetts politics are very different.

Ray Mariano

In 1972, the voters made Massachusetts the only state to cast its Electoral College votes for liberal George McGovern over Richard Nixon. Then, as President Nixon marched toward impeachment, bumper stickers proclaiming “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts” were a defiant acknowledgment that we thought we knew better than the rest of the country.

More recently, Massachusetts became the first state in the country to legalize gay marriage.

While we are certainly not unique, our politics have always been different from many of the other states in the union – especially from those of the South.

I remember when I was a new mayor, traveling to Washington, D.C. to get a few things done for our community. Then-Congressman Peter Blute took me to lunch in the Speaker’s Dining Room. While there, a congressman from Ohio came over to say hello. He asked me how his friend Peter was doing with the voters at home.

I always liked Peter. Our politics were very different, but he was always very friendly and respectful to me. I told the congressman that Peter was well-respected but that his politics were a little bit too conservative for many of the voters in the district. The politician from Ohio laughed and said, “Down here, we consider Peter a flaming liberal.”

Like I said, our politics are very different.

It is easy to forget how different we are. As we watch the news, we tend to judge everything through the prism of Massachusetts’ political values and experiences. When we do, it is hard to understand why people from other parts of the country act the way they do.

Recently, my wife and I took a trip down south. We were traveling along Interstate 95 in North Carolina when something I saw caught my attention and snapped my head back. To my right, in a large field surrounded by trees and other natural landscape was a huge, 30- to 40-foot flagpole sporting an enormous flag – the kind of enormous pole you might see at a very large car dealership.

The difference between this pole and one you might see on Route 9 in Westborough was that it carried a giant Confederate flag. There was no Old Glory anywhere in sight.

There was nothing else in the area of the flag. There were no businesses to promote, no signs of commerce whatsoever. It was simply a sign stuck on the side of the road that seemed to say, “Welcome to the Confederacy.”

After we reached our destination, I learned from the news that a Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, Ed Gillespie, was running ads saying he would not take down statues of Confederate leaders. “I’m for keeping them up, he’s for taking them down,” Gillespie proudly proclaimed.

In Massachusetts, the vast majority of voters would oppose a position like that.

Nevertheless, even though Gillespie lost the election, his position had a strong constituency – exit polls showed that 60 percent of those who voted favored his position.

In Savannah, Georgia, we saw magnificently landscaped public squares, most dedicated to heroes of the Revolutionary War. At the end of these public spaces, we walked through a large public park with an enormous monument topped by a statue of an officer of the Confederacy.

As you look around, you see streets, schools and buildings all named in honor of men who fought to secede from our nation. I have always been struck by the fact that in no other nation does the government allow the people to erect statues to men who tried and failed to overthrow the government.

And then there are bridges and lunch counters that remind us of the struggles of the civil rights movement. Standing almost side-by-side, the contrasting images of the Confederacy and the civil rights movement are striking.

One of the more powerful images I saw during my recent visit came on a side trip to Savannah. Walking along the river in downtown, I was drawn to a large statue of a family. The figures were formed in a dark, almost black bronze: a mother, father and two small children. The family had shackles and chains lying at their feet to indicate their status as former slaves.

Engraved on the base was an inscription by poet Maya Angelou:

“We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African continent. We got on the slave ships together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each other’s excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy.”

Known as the African American Family Monument, this statue stands in the middle of a robust commercial area. Shoppers walk by, many unaware that it is even there. I found it to be an incredibly moving experience.

A few days later, when we discussed visiting a plantation, I was reluctant. But my wife, a former history teacher, reasoned that it would give us a greater understanding of what happened during this dark chapter in our nation’s history.

After we arrived, I noticed that most of the visitors were focusing on the grandeur and beauty of the grounds and buildings. The grounds were indeed magnificent.

But I was more focused on the ugliness: the ramshackle, tiny living quarters slave families crammed into at night, the artifacts, and the educational videos that described the horrible treatment of fellow human beings.

I could not get away from the fact that a country founded on the principle of freedom was built on the backs of slaves.

When it was over, just for a moment, I broke down.

In Massachusetts, we have some exposure to slavery. We teach young students about the causes and results of the Civil War, but nothing like this – nothing like what was experienced and continues to be experienced throughout the South. Images and remnants of that time are everywhere, and all around you.

Standing in the middle of the South does not change my view about some of the issues facing our country – I have always opposed flying the Confederate flag and honoring leaders who fought for the right to keep slaves. But as I looked all around me, in what once was the Confederacy, I had a deeper, more personal understanding of that disgraceful time – and a stronger resolve to continue our march toward a more perfect union.

Back at home, while discussing our trip with friends, someone asked me about the propriety of Civil War statues in the context of maintaining history. I told my friend that, in Germany, there are no public statues of Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler or Hermann Goring. The enslavement, abuse, rape, torture and killing of millions of human beings do not deserve to be glorified with a flag or a statue. These images need to be confined to museums and studied as an evil chapter in our nation’s history.

Like I said, in Massachusetts, especially when compared to Southern states, our politics are very different.

Editor’s note: We hope you’ve enjoyed this free preview of Ray’s unique perspective and unmistakable candor. Be sure to check back in coming weeks to find out how you can keep on reading Worcester’s best commentary without becoming a Sun member when the preview ends. Ray can be reached via email at Mariano@worcester.ma.

Raymond V. Mariano is a Worcester Sun columnist. He comments on his hometown and global issues that impact it every Sunday in Worcester Sun. His column will appear every week in the Sun’s print edition, on newsstands Dec. 9.

14 thoughts on “Mariano: Traveling through the Confederacy

  1. Dear Ray,
    Thank you for sharing your visit to the south. It was eye opening and informative. Of course there will always be differences in the North and South, but we are people, no matter white, black, multi-cultural, gay or straight. We are people of God. Thank you, and keep writing.
    Judy

  2. Ray,
    I enjoy reading your opinion and regularly I quote you in my ethics classes… amazingly this subject is very alive in a very diverse class… the monument controversy is strongly argued by students from the South… it is culturally supported within their upbringing and shows just how divided we remain and how much work is needed.
    Thank you for your continued work to bring home values we should all be able to support.
    Mike

  3. Trying to be provocative Ray, pulling a Clive Mcfarland on us today? You must really be desperate for clicks ole timer?
    You clearly have never read a history book beyond that given to you in high school. You’re no intellectual Ray, like many of your ilk you obviously don’t understand the reasons for the US Civil War. Tip, it was not just about slavery.
    So, the Confederates are to be equated with Germany’s Nazis. I would like to point out the glaring blunders in your discourse: the Confederates were not involved in genocide, neither did they target Jews for extermination, or enslave whites, or subjugate other nations.
    Your perspective certainly is unique Ray.
    Question, who’s that friend you refer to Ray, Joe Petty?

    • Southern leaders enslaved an entire race of people. They were raped, murdered and abused for generations. Such abhorrent behavior is to be condemned and not enshrined.

      • Entire race, you sure about that Ray? Didn’t realize the CSA had armies in Africa and elsewhere.
        Raped, murdered and abused. Sounds like Chicago 2017 (Obama’s hometown), yet you turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by Blacks on Blacks taking place there each and every day.
        BTW Ray, hate to break it to you, the Civil War wasn’t about the abolition of slavery, it was to about saving the Union. Lincoln inserted the abolition part in 1863; turning it into a moral war, a jihad if you will. Of course no mention by you of the 600,000 Whites who died trying to save a nation… oh, and free the Black race.
        As always, your perspective is unique Ray.
        Now I see why you became a bureaucrat.

  4. Mr. Mariano,
    Thanks.
    By the way, I am not a big fan of judging anything through the prism of Massachusetts’ (or any state) political values/experiences; in fact, it may be best to take off our polarized political glasses and try teaching our children to be kind, work hard and respect everyone. Teaching by example is one tried and tested way. It seems to me that we have too many critics and judges on this Earth.

  5. Dear Mr. Mariano: I’m glad that you enjoyed your Southern Trip, but if you wanted some Slavery Monuments to explore, just drive a few miles from Worcester. MA was one of the most aggressive Pro Slavery States. It started with the MA Government shipping Rebellious Indians to the Caribbean to work as Slaves on the Sugar Plantations. Main broke away from MA because they didn’t support MA’s support of Slavery. Hundreds of Boston’s Whaling Captains joined in the Africa to the Caribbean to the South Slave Trade. The Brown Family of Rhode Island (Brown University) was among this country’s Major Slave Owners. One of Boston’s Major Slave Traders was Peter Faneuil who gifted Faneuil Hall to the city and held Slave Auctions nearby. President Lincoln believed that a blockade of Cotton coming to the North would shorten the Civil War. The MA Mill Owners with payoffs were able to get Cotton to the MA Cotton Mills throughout the War thereby extending the atrocities. After the Civil War, MA cleaned up its Slavery Image and destroyed books and documents relating to these Slavery Connections. Where I am in Western MA, the Plunkett Family owned a Slave Plantation in MS and owned the Berkshire Cotton Mills. Also, some of the Williams College Buildings such as Lawrence Hall were gifts from Cotton Mill Owners who became very rich from Slavery. Over the past couple of years, Harvard and Brown have been holding conferences that highlight their connections to Slavery. I suggest you sign up to attend the next one.

  6. All of us have a “mote and beam” problem, where the travesties of others are so much clearer to us than our own. I stay here in Massachusetts because, regardless of our distant past, it is still one of the most humane states in the U.S., and we keep trying to get better. I do not want to quibble about who killed more of whose people – I am most concerned about the fact that we are still slaughtering and enslaving members of our species in huge numbers: My father’s family lost 12 members in Germany in WWII, including my grandmother and aunt who perished in a Polish concentration camp. And we trace millenia of persecution in our history, and it continues…
    And for those who want to point out black-on-black crime, I would like to point them to the “great” white ones ( think of the mass killers of our age, who were almost all white young men whose victims were also white (think of Manson, Wayne Gacy, the Newtown killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, etc.. ad nauseam). “Life/Time put out a special edition listing these killers.
    We all live in the land that was acquired by a great genocide . So, let us remember that “those who live in glass houses should not throw stones…….Rather let us examine the mote in our eyes, and understand that but for fortunate circumstances, there go we.

  7. A Southern Exposure by Harvey Fenigsohn published in the Worcester Telegram as an “As I See It” column, July 5, 2015
    William Faulkner, the great Nobel Prize winning, southern writer once famously said, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” South Carolina’s stubborn insistence on flying the Confederate flag on a state building, no matter what rightful objections, reveals the truth of Faulkner’s words. As we recently discovered, some southerners honor the glory of the Old South, the nobility of their ancestor’s lost cause, the splendor of their struggle. Clinging to this romantic dream, they sleep untroubled by history’s ghostly nightmare. The fact is that the so-called noble cause of the Confederacy resulted in the death of over 265,000 solders fighting to either eradicate or preserve what was then euphemistically known as a “peculiar institution,” chattel slavery in which human beings were bought and sold like animals.
    Though I now live in the north, my roots are southern. Born in Virginia in the 1940’s, I grew up with segregation – a rigid, unyielding legal and social separation of the races. I attended all-white schools, including Bankhead McGruder, a grammar school named after a revered Confederate general. I rode downtown to the exclusively white part of town in a bus relegating blacks to a few uncomfortable seats in the back. The movie house I attended, the restaurants where we dined, the city recreation pool where I swam –all by law excluded African Americans. Nor could black men and women use the same rest room facilities, necessitating the absurd redundancy of four different lavatories. Though my family taught me better, I was surrounded by adults and peers who routinely used the n-word along with other vicious slurs to vilify black people. In fact, some of my best friends were racists.
    Unforgettable images of racial indignities remain indelible. How could I forget our public library with its two water fountains – one labeled “whites” and a smaller one labelled “coloreds?” As a curious child, after checking that no one was looking, I made the rash decision to drink from both fountains. I’ll never forget the taste of the two waters. Was it just my imagination that the water for “whites” seemed cool and refreshing, while the water for the “coloreds” appeared luke-warm and brackish? The south claimed the concept of “separate but equal” insured justice. But I came to understand that this claim was a ruse, a pretext, a hoax -just another way to rationalize prejudice and discrimination.
    Years later, furthering my education in the sixties, I attended two prestigious southern universities, one for a bachelors and the other for a masters. As an undergraduate, I took pride that Mr. William Faulkner, himself, was established as our Writer-in-Residence but on the same campus, a policy of exclusion prevailed- neither blacks nor women need apply. To its credit, the University of Virginia today welcomes African-Americans as well as women. Indeed, with the advent of the Civil Rights Movement, the south, at times surpassing the north, continues to make admirable progress in overcoming the shameful, racial injustices I witnessed growing up.
    Nevertheless, as part of our heritage, racism persists -sometimes subtle, sometimes flagrant – but always present -both north and south. A provocative symbol of bigotry and racism, the Confederate flag flying over the State House grounds in South Carolina must come down. The same flag must also be lowered in Mississippi where, when given the choice, the voters elected to keep the flag of the Confederacy flying on state property. Yes, democracy rules, but not if the rules attempt to revive a dead past – a past southerners may never forget- but a past the entire nation must dedicate itself to burying forever.

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