One-hundred years ago, economic and social inequalities dominated in America. The Gilded Age (1870-1900) of John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie produced more millionaires than ever before, but the rising tide from its expansive economic growth didn’t float everyone’s boat – poverty festered, especially among European immigrants in the Northeast and among the first generation of freed men and women, and their children, in the South.
A counter movement emerged which sought to repudiate the numerous inequalities and corruptions produced by the Gilded Age. The Progressive Era and its widespread activism produced women’s suffrage, antitrust laws, the federal income tax, investigative muckraking journalism, and Prohibition. The Progressive Movement was not particularly successful in eradicating the stifling racism of Jim Crow attitudes and laws, which gained considerable momentum in the South after the 1877 abandonment of Reconstruction.
This back-and-forth jousting between the proponents of the lingering Gilded Age and the Progressive Movement – a slugfest intended to sway America’s soul in the early 1900s – was the historical backdrop for the commissioning and erection of the vast majority of Confederate monuments. These monuments were dedicated not only to idolize culture and history, but more so to safeguard and protect the future. These monuments, placed in public squares, courthouses, and educational institutions, were the YouTube videos of a century ago – a visual teaching lesson at a glance meant to enshrine a white-controlled future and to stymie the slightest encroachment toward racial equality.
I was born in 1961 and grew up in Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. Family ties on both my mom’s and dad’s sides go back some five and six generations in the Upper-Midwest. I consequently soaked in the teaching about the Civil War from my upbringing: It was solely about the eradication of slavery. Period.
As a teenager in the Chicago area, I heard Charlie Daniels sing “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” on the radio, and saw images of the Confederate flag on Lynyrd Skynyrd concert tee-shirts that high school friends wore. En route to Florida for a family vacation in 1977, I squinted and gazed at the Stone Mountain monument in Georgia.
I moved to Texas in 1991, where I was introduced to the Lost Cause, the idea that the Civil War was about states’ rights, and ultimately about the preservation of the Southern way of life in the face of Northern aggression.
I’m still in Texas almost thirty years later. I’ve worked as a bilingual (Spanish) Protestant minister for the duration of my Southern sojourn. The sentiments of my upbringing, based in egalitarianism, have not only endured but have been bolstered by my pastoral experiences: God has created us – in God’s image, no less – as equals, and calls us to rightly share the resources of this earth and to promote the dignity of all. It’s a divine calling.
A major part of the American narrative – this is the land of opportunity where ingenuity, grit, and can-do-ism are duly rewarded – is arguably mythical. Opportunity is attainable for some, but certainly not for all. And it’s always been that way, especially today. Black home ownership rates are 30 percentage points below that of whites – a rate just as bad as it was 1968 when the Fair Housing Act made housing discrimination illegal – and Blacks claim, shockingly, one-tenth of the wealth that whites do in this country.
Inequality and egalitarianism, as if two sides of a uniquely American-minted coin, have done battle to keep the other in check since the founding of this society. I define egalitarianism in a sociopolitical terms: A group or community engaged in the struggle of self-determination within the larger community or with a competing community seeks, attains, and maintains a balance or equity with its competitor. Egalitarianism emerges and comes to light from a situation of specific inequality—dominance-subordination. The spirit of egalitarianism opposes unfair advantages. It’s American to the core and even biblical. Black Lives Matter is an egalitarian movement, as were these movements: women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay marriage.
The current president, showing himself a behemoth of incompetency in the face of multiple crises, has vehemently pledged his support to protect the monuments where they stand. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “first white president” is essentially a white supremacist. Coates says that the “foundation of his presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy” – made possible by the ample support of Trump’s base. Make America Great Again? If only the president wasn’t so adept at lying and obfuscation: It’s much more so “Make America White Again.”
Extremist behavior seems to proliferate during eras of inequality. But a pendulum’s wide swing on one side dictates a comparable swing to the other side. When the Confederate monuments were erected and the Klan reemerged in the early 1900s, the NAACP was also formed. When the Stone Mountain memorial was officially opened in 1965, Civil Rights enactments and laws were freshly in place to repudiate those legacies perpetuated upon the rock face.
Other available legacies have much more worth for American society – legacies of bravery in the face of oppression, calling the willing to the struggle for liberty, justice and equality for all.
What would America be like a generation from now if we erected more monuments of MLK, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass?
T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019).
I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”