The Paradox of Prideful Shame

In the About South podcast episode, “To Atlanta, with love,” Dr. Calinda Lee discussed her ideas of preserving and representing public history, specifically in Atlanta. An important topic she introduced was the sense of guilt descendants of confederates feel, due to them identifying with their transgressions despite being blameless. She comments, “[they] want to believe [their] grandfather, great grandfather, and so-on fought and died for something just and laudable,” but the truth remains that the South seceded for one reason only: enslavement. They wanted to continue the enslavement of black people. According to Dr. Lee, “Atlanta is often not only [considered] the exception to Georgia but the entire south,” because of its prominent blue status surrounded by red. The diverse population of Atlanta somehow disqualifies it from the scrutiny of racism. 

The Capitol building located less than a mile from Georgia State University stands proudly in the heart of Atlanta. Orbited by southern iconography, in the form of monuments, statues, and symbols revering proud Georgians. A few yards from the disfigured bronze statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., rest the statue of John Brown Gordon perched atop a horse staring intently at the city. Gordon was a “three-star Confederate general and served as governor and U.S. senator. Historians generally agree that he was also the unofficial leader of Georgia’s Ku Klux Klan” (Corson). Statues are representations of not only their importance but of celebration for the figure erected, reverence for their deeds or acts. Therefore, Atlanta sends a rather mixed message memorializing a civil rights activist in MLK and a Confederate general in Gordon on the same land. 

Gordon believed in oppression and enslavement. As a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, he thrived on intimidation tactics to terrify unprotected black citizens both enslaved and free from the tortures of enslavement.

(Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Yet, his statue is not one of shame, but pride. When staring up at the discolored man and his horse, a feeling Dr. Lee described in her interview with Dr. Caison that said, “there’s all this focus in the American South on the Civil War. The lost cause looms large and never shall the flag be buried,” which is a sentiment still felt amongst some Southerns today. Almost as if the Civil War wasn’t a win for America, but a loss for the South, further validating their grounds for secession. However, Gordon is not located amidst the red shrubbery of those yearning for the ‘good ole dixie’ days, but on government soil blocks away from Auburn Avenue. This glorification of the confederacy reveals the historical mindset of Atlanta during the Civil War, a war in which, the South fought against human rights. A blinder has been set upon the eyes of supporters of confederate memorialization, such as Gordon’s statue, that the Confederacy is southern culture and a symbol of rebellion against the government, instead of its true racist symbolism.

During my travels in the capital of Germany, the lack of Nazi statues astonished me. America had ingrained in me the purpose of Confederate statues, claiming they attested to the progression of our country and represented an important moment or person in history. Every Nazi symbol was regulated to museums only, leaving behind a Stolperstein. Brass cubes engraved with the names of Jewish victims of the holocaust, commemorating their lives rather than uplifting the very iconography that condemned them. Although the Holocaust and enslavement should be compared, the public memory of Germany chose to recognize those victimized rather than the victimizer because they’re not proud of the history. Why aren’t museums enough for Confederate symbols? 

The question of progression bubbles-up. Human rights, public memory, and history, all interconnected in the South, it’s impossible to raise your finger and not move the bone. The confederacy was against human rights historically, and the public memory chosen for confederacy is not one of shame, but statues of John Brown Gordon. I read once that while the Union won the Civil War, the South won reconstruction – the presence of John Brown Gordon proves that he was right. However, the white South doesn’t encompass the entire region. Black southerners left their marks in the hostile climate of the South in a multitude of ways. Black men were given full citizenship succeeding the Civil War and exercised their human rights. Their success was evident, therefore, groups such as the Ku Klux Klan arose to dismantle and scare African Americans into submission. Resilience is a trait black Southerners had in abundance, fighting against every adversary that attempted to restrict their freedom even big figures like Gordon. Southern history is firmly interlocked with American black history. The confederate South doesn’t encompass Southern culture or history. Yes, Gordon is there, but Martin Luther King Jr.’s bronze statue stands yards away, and Auburn Avenue rests a few blocks away: remembered. 



Photo Credit: Brent Moore

Photo Credit: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Works Cited:

“To Atlanta, with Love” About South Podcast.

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