To the victors go the statues
By Rick Holmes
GateHouse Media Columnist
The best political controversies come with history lessons attached. Today's headlines resonate with some long ago dispute, and we get to learn about a chapter of America's story we've never read.
So it is with the fierce debate over the statues of Confederate leaders that dot the southern landscape.
Those statues don’t lead us back to the Civil War, which has never lost the attention of the American people. To the victors go the statues, and the statues of Abraham Lincoln, not Robert E. Lee, are that war’s legacy.
The statues of Lee, Jefferson Davis and other Confederate heroes were erected decades after the Civil War. They were put up by those celebrating something else: their political victory over Reconstruction and civil rights.
Philadelphia’s newest statue tells the other side of that story, but first let’s review Reconstruction.
After the South’s surrender, the U.S. Army occupied former Confederate states, and was charged with enforcing federal laws. Foremost among these were the Reconstruction Amendments, which ended slavery (13th), gave equal rights to all Americans (14th) and guaranteed the right to vote to citizens of all races (15th). These amendments are the greatest Civil War monuments of all.
Reconstruction was almost as contentious as war. There were riots as federal troops escorted freed slaves to the polls. The Ku Klux Klan and other paramilitary organizations terrorized African Americans. There were lynchings and massacres.
In the middle of this cauldron stood leaders of America’s first civil rights movement: emancipated and educated African Americans determined to hold on to the rights the Constitution now promised. They held elected and appointed positions in the occupied South. They opened schools and created organizations to elevate African Americans.
Octavius Catto was one of these. A Philadelphia educator, he recruited “colored troops” to fight for the Union. He fought to desegregate Philadelphia’s horse-drawn trolley cars, at one point stepping on to a trolley and refusing to leave. The driver finally led the horses away and abandoned the trolley, according to an 1865 account in The New York Times. Catto stayed there all night to prove the point that public services were for everyone.
Catto was a scholar and played second base on Philadelphia’s best black baseball team. According to biographers Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin, Catto pushed to desegregate Philadelphia’s literary societies and its baseball leagues. He was passionate about the right to vote. Catto was on his way to vote in 1871, as anti-Reconstruction Democrats clashed in the streets with pro-Reconstruction Republicans, when he was assassinated. He was just 32.
Reconstruction policy dominated politics for more than a decade after the war. It was behind the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson and the disputed election of 1877, which was resolved through a promise to withdraw all federal troops from the South.
That marked the official end of Reconstruction and the unofficial beginning of the Jim Crow Era. Back in power, white supremacist politicians reversed the gains of African Americans. The imposed laws requiring the races be segregated in public places. They took away their right to vote. Then they concocted the “Lost Cause” myth to justify their acts and put up statues of Lee, Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest – the founder of the KKK.
To the victors go the statues. “Massa’s back in charge,” the post-Reconstruction statues said.
“What remains certain is that Reconstruction failed, and for blacks its failure was a disaster,” writes historian Eric Foner.
America’s first civil rights movement failed as well. It would be another 100 years before its second civil rights movement won back the freedoms lost in the white backlash against Reconstruction.
But its heroes ought to be remembered. Our history should unite Americans, not drive us apart. We do that by telling everyone’s stories, not just the stories of the victors. We become one people by accepting all those stories as our own.
Which brings us back to Philadelphia, which has hundreds of statues in public places, including the likenesses of Washington, Lincoln and Rocky Balboa, but none featuring an African American. This month, Octavius Catto integrates that assembly, in a place of honor outside City Hall.
History is the stories we choose to tell. With white supremacists again on the march and the right to vote again endangered, it’s an especially good time to tell the story of a man who integrated public transit 90 years before Rosa Parks, broke baseball’s color barrier 78 years before Jackie Robinson, and was a martyr to the cause 97 years before Martin Luther King. It reminds us that victories don’t always last, and that we must never stop fighting for freedom and justice.