The feeling was palpable and even in the moment I knew that I was seeing the Civil War monument with keener eyes. Yesterday I spent a few hours in Muskegon, Michigan with family on our way home from our summer vacation along Lake Michigan’s shores. We parked the car to give the kiddos a chance to run around a bit and figure out how we should spend our time before catching the ferry back to our lives that don’t involve sandy beaches every morning and afternoon.
In the middle of Muskegon’s Hackley Park, a tall granite shaft pierces the sky. It was a beautiful sky yesterday — bright blue with big, puffy clouds. As I looked more closely, I saw it was a war memorial. As I looked more closely, still, I saw that it was a memorial to the soldiers and sailors of the Civil War.
“Not conquest, but peace,” was written on one side. I walked around to see “and a united people” on the other side. On August 12, 2017, I more fully understood our bloody Civil War that almost destroyed the United States of America in its infancy. I could comprehend it in a way that I have never before.
Looking up at the sculpted soldiers and sailors and reflecting on the words that commemorated a war that almost broke our country, it seemed clearer to me how that degree of hate and bloodshed is possible. The tone of our current divided America makes that understanding so much more accessible.
Today in America, nothing feels very united. We are a nation divided. Again or still, take your pick. What divides us? The same things that have divided us since before that Civil War so long ago. It really is as simple as black (or shades thereof) and white.
America was founded on white supremacy. That is simple fact. White Europeans landed on the shores of a new to them continent. They did not discover this land, as it had been inhabited by humans that happened to be native born, but they did colonize it. When those colonies formed a United States, slaves were a foundation of the American economy.
At its core, the Civil War was about eleven southern states not wanting to cede to a country that was moving towards the abolition of slavery, which was central to the southern economy and way of life. So what did they do? They formally seceded to continue the reprehensible practice of owning humans with a skin color darker than their own who were forcibly imported here from Africa.
After 622,000 men were killed, a full 2% of the population, the Confederacy surrendered. They were beaten into submission, their rebellion squashed, their states almost unrecognizable. But where does that hate go? Does it just disappear? Did the Confederacy merely lick their wounds and move forward, welcomed back to the United States with open arms, forgiven their sins?
The idea of the North as good and the South as bad is simplistic and inaccurate. With the passage of the 13th (the abolition of slavery), 14th (all citizens having equal protection under the laws), and 15th (granting black men the right to vote) amendments, plenty of northerners were worried. Even my beloved and evolved Walt Whitman did not agree with giving freed black men the right to vote.
America lurched forward, inequality remaining firmly entrenched in our culture. Slaves don’t just magically go from being owned to being fully autonomous. By the time America entered into WWII (only after being attacked at Pearl Harbor), the armed forces of the US were still segregated. Integration didn’t occur until 1948. And that forced integration was the result of an Executive Order by then President Truman, not a Congress that drafted bi-partisan legislation to make it the law of the land. Think about that.
After Hackley Park and those Civil War monuments, my family made its way to the USS 393, docked in Muskegon and now a private military museum. We toured this WWII era LST ship used to transport tanks and POWs and injured soldiers. The ship now contains thousands of pieces of military ephemera, from flags to uniforms to weaponry.
Along one wall two flags were displayed — a tattered American Stars and Stripes, and the bright red Nazi flag. I snapped photos of both, humbled to learn the ship had been at the invasion of Omaha Beach on D-Day. I tried to explain the significance of that day to my eight year old. I failed. As I snapped a photo of the Nazi swastika, my mother-in-law cautioned me against posting it on Facebook, “All those neo-Nazis will find you. You don’t want that.” It still feels shocking to see a Nazi flag. It has a potency that cannot be ignored.
Full disclosure, that week in Michigan was blissful. It was so good to step away from following the news so obsessively. It was good to be with family and in nature. It was good to not think about what is happening in America. But, yes, it was vacation, and what is a sure thing about vacations? They end.
Last night, after we had crossed Lake Michigan by ferry, I fired up Facebook and the news of the day came screeching back. Charlottesville. Nazis. White supremacy. Violence. Hate. Bigotry. Insufficient condemnation from our president.
The murder of Heather Heyer while she was counterprotesting at the Unite the Right protest is where America is at in 2017. There is a direct correlation between the Civil War and WWII and what happened in the streets of Charlottesville this weekend. Connect the dots. It is easy to do.
This is no longer reading about events in a history book. This is not being inconvenienced by marches or other Americans who disagree about politics. This is not visiting a memorial or a museum. This is not about white guilt. This is not a drill.
There are actual Nazis and actual white supremacists gathering and organizing and perpetrating violence today, right here and right now on America’s streets. They are celebrating after Trump did not single out their actions in his remarks about the protests. They are growing and emboldened and promising more to come. They feel victorious and ready to rumble.
Thinking about those memorials I saw yesterday makes everything more real. I wonder how soldiers dying on a field in Pennsylvania, or others sitting in a tank disembarking onto a beach in France to fight Nazis would think about the swastika flying in the breeze in Charlottesville, Virginia on a warm summer day in 2017.
How do you feel about it? What are you willing to do to stop it?