When British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army to General George Washington at Yorktown in 1781, he wanted to leave the field of battle in smart moving formation, but Washington turned down his choice of marching music. He did accept a second choice and history records the defeated British Army left the field, not to a smart stepping military piece but to the subdued, even sombre, tones of an old song The World Turned Upside Down.
Whether by design or accident, it proved to be an accurate theme for the birth and early history of the United States of America. And, it could be re-played today without serious challenge as the foundations of the nation – laid with such hopeful promise close to 240 years ago – tremble as the Republic is threatened again. The world was then and is today turned upside down.
In recent days, the statue of first USA president, General Washington, was toppled from its historic pedestal, besmirched with muck, and daubed with paint and badly written insults. He is not the first American hero to be ripped from a place of honour. Privately, Washington supported abolition, but carefully. He once told members of his cabinet he feared eventual conflict between northern and southern states and warned should that happen he would support abolition. But, he still owned a hundred or more slaves to work his farmland. Many were buried in unmarked graves on his land. Historians say he treated them well in life and his will granted all of them their freedom when he died.
But, Wikipedia states: “There is no indication Washington ever favoured an immediate end to slavery. His abolitionist aspirations were confined to the hope that slavery would disappear naturally over time.”
One of the first American heroes once revered and then irreverently removed from a place of high honour was General Robert E. Lee. He was the man who led the Confederate Army in the great Civil War that would decide whether slavery should continue as a flourishing, brutal business or be ended with emancipation guaranteeing equality of life for all U.S. citizens as promised by then-president Abraham Lincoln.
Lee was an ardent defender of the right of white citizens to buy and own black slaves. They were citizens of South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas and joined later by Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee. The Confederate States lost the four-year (1861-65) blood bath and eventually lost their right to own other human beings as slaves.
But many have never given up the belief that black people are, by virtue of being black, inferior. And that white men, who fought and died for the right to own slaves, are deserving of something close to sainthood. Confederate soldiers were honoured with statues and shrines and the old Confederate flag continued to fly in many of the Confederate States.
The campaign for equality is being waged more stridently than ever been these days – and the possibility of success is more encouraging than ever.
It was in June 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, that Dylan Roof, 21, entered the Emmanuel African Methodist Church, joined a prayer group and pulled a handgun to shoot and kill nine worshippers as they held hands in prayer. Roof was captured, tried, found guilty and remains in prison.
Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans at the time, decided strong action was required to awaken a public that seemed to be increasingly indifferent to Roof’’s murder spree, his trial and punishment. He decided to remove from a place of prominence a magnificent statue of General Lee, triumphant on his battle horse, defeated in a cruel Civil War, but still a warrior to be publicly admired. It took Mayor Landrieu two years to remove Lee and his horse. In a comprehensive report published this month in Vanity Fair, the former mayor was asked if seeing more statues being banished pleased him: “No. It makes me feel sad, actually, that it
took so long. There is no defence for having a monument in a place of reverence to a person who fought to destroy the country in order to preserve slavery.”
Mayor Landrieu didn’t stop with a single action. After leaving the mayor’s office in 2018 he has travelled the country to talk about being “divided by design” and the confidence he has that the current wave of “Black Lives Matter” mass protests signify “a change is coming.”
We can hope so. It’s been a long and often bloody wait for an answer, in a world turned upside down, to a question we should never need to ask.