Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the removal of the Robert E. Lee Monument on Thursday, June 4.
The state-owned statue is in Richmond on Monument Avenue, so named for the various statues of Confederate leaders located there.
Subsequent to Northam’s order, all nine members of the Richmond City Council also unanimously stated their support for the removal of four other city-owned Confederate memorial statues.
My response was emotional because I was forced to acknowledge I have been surrounded by symbols of the Confederacy my entire life.
My grandfather Cecil Albert Turner was the caretaker (curator, really, though he would not have used that term) of the plantation home and property of Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler in Wheeler, Alabama.
When I was a boy, I had a job emptying grain trucks for Wheeler’s great-grandson; growing up, I understood Gen. “Fightin’ Joe” Wheeler to be a hero.
I still remember my grandfather’s presentation to visitors touring the historic home.
“Gen. Wheeler was amongst the youngest generals in the Confederate army. He had 16 horses shot out from under him in battle. He served as a congressman from Alabama after the war,” my grandfather explained.
“Gen. Wheeler is the only Confederate corps commander to hold the same position in the U.S. Army after the Civil War, when he served as general of the volunteers in the Spanish-American War and later brigadier general in the Regular Army. Theodore Roosevelt actually served under Wheeler’s command in Cuba.”
My dad grew up in one of the two homes on the Wheeler property. We celebrated Christmases there. I spent weeks at a time on the plantation during summers of my youth when I visited my grandfather.
In many ways, the Wheeler home was my family’s home (symbolically speaking), and the Wheeler story became part of our story.
Later, as I grew to be an adult and a more mature follower of Jesus, I began to see what I could not see as a child when I ate fried chicken, deviled eggs and Coca-Cola cake at all those Daughters of the Confederacy picnics.
As I think back on the deliciousness of those foods, I am amazed at how “normal” they made those picnics feel.
Though my memories are warm, I wonder how long it will take the children of today to recognize malevolence. Will it take them as long as it took me?
Confederate Gens. Wheeler and Lee were traitors to the nation whose flag they swore to defend.
Both generals fought to advance (or for their states to have the right to advance) the oppression and enslavement of millions of men, women and children. The men’s allegiance was flawed and the antithesis of Christ’s teaching.
Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
Jesus’ new commandment corresponds very closely with the commandment, actually two commandments, he identified in Matthew 22:37-40 as the greatest – to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
As a minister of the gospel and a son of the south, I believe the time is long overdue for us to stop celebrating, paying respects to and erecting idols in memory of those who caused and participated in the pain and death of so many innocents.
Why do we insist upon glorifying those who clearly lived in contradiction to the life and commandments of Jesus?
I can only imagine the deep pain descendants of slaves feel when they look at memorials like the monument to Gen. Lee in Richmond or Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in my home state of Alabama.
Ironically, Robert E. Lee, for different reasons, himself argued against memorials to Confederate leaders.
In 1869, in response to one proposed memorial, Lee said, “I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
I must continue to wrestle with the embarrassment I now feel about the pride I once expressed about my family connection to the story of the Confederacy.
My discomfort, however, in no way compares to the pain African Americans feel when confronted by Confederate memorials.
I applaud Northam’s decision to remove the monument from its prominent position in the city of Richmond.
The lost cause for which Lee fought was not noble and is not something to be celebrated.
The stain of slavery persists in our country and continues to inflict pain upon all Americans, whether or not we recognize and acknowledge it.
Stories of Lee, Wheeler and others should not be forgotten and should, indeed, be taught in history books and depicted in museums, not because the causes for which they fought were noble but so we do not forget.
Mistakes of bygone eras must be acknowledged not glorified, instructed not celebrated.
To do anything less is to keep our country rooted in the pain of the past and to engender pain anew.
David Turner is Senior Pastor of Central Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.