The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville was ostensibly about protecting the Robert E. Lee statue. It included demonstrators chanting, “Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi slogan “blood and soil.”
Ironically, Jews were prominent in the Confederacy, serving as foot soldiers and officers and in the Cabinet of the Confederate States of America. Judah Benjamin, a former U.S. senator from Louisiana, served as the Confederate’s attorney general, secretary of war and secretary of state. According to Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, her husband considered Benjamin his “right hand.”
In 1845, the first Jew to serve as a U.S. senator was David Levy Ulee of Florida. In 1861, he left the Senate in support of the Confederacy. The Confederate Army included Quartermaster General Abraham Myers. The six Cohen brothers were soldiers in North Carolina’s 40th Infantry. The five Moses brothers from South Carolina served from the first shots at Fort Sumter to the end of the war. It is estimated that more than 3,000 Jewish Confederate soldiers lost their lives.
That none are memorialized in Confederate monuments is telling. As the nation is learning, these monuments were principally erected in the 1890s and early part of the 20th century during the Jim Crow era. They represented a response to the 14th Amendment’s right to citizenship and equal protection and the 15th Amendment’s right to vote regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude.
The statues venerate Christian Confederates and symbolize the attempt to intimidate, delegitimize and maintain the status of those formerly held in servitude. Without opposition, the monuments appeared across the former 11 Confederate states and beyond.
In 2015, former Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley removed the Confederate flag from atop her state’s capitol. And this month, more than 100 years after they were installed in Maryland, Confederate monuments were removed from Baltimore by the city’s Democrat-controlled City Council. (Maryland, like three other slave states that were actually part of the Union, was exempted from President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.)
Just as Confederate Jews were not acknowledged, the monuments now capturing much of the nation’s attention neither memorialize the sacrifices of the enslaved people upon whose backs much of Southern wealth had been generated, nor do they explain the brutality of that enslavement.
None reflect or hope for moral redemption for that inhumanity practiced by half of this country. So for many Americans, the Confederate monuments represent not a glorified past, but the unfortunate reality of separate and unequal, of poll taxes and barbaric lynchings untethered to justice.
The alt-right demonstration in Charlottesville and President Trump’s response have created a teachable moment. There is much misunderstanding about the Civil War, especially its inception and aftermath. After 152 years since the cessation of the Civil War, it is long overdue in both the South and North to more fully address this festering sore on the nation’s soul.
It is an opportunity to reflect on post-Civil War push back and its longstanding impact on Americans and American values.
Malcolm Lazin is a former federal prosecutor and executive director of Equality Forum. He lives in Santa Fe, N.M.