By BEN R. WILLIAMS
I’m going to get back to writing about my stupid and hilarious misadventures, but today I once again want to write about something important.
About five years ago, I had a front-row seat to a remarkable moment.
In 2015, now-retired Patrick County Judge Martin Clark made the decision to remove a portrait of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart from his courtroom. He made this decision because, as a judge, he was charged with maintaining a neutral courtroom, and if there’s a portrait of a Confederate General hanging on the wall, it ain’t exactly neutral for everybody.
As I recall, the portrait had been removed for somewhere between a couple weeks and a couple months before anyone even noticed, but once someone DID notice, chaos ensued. Suddenly I was covering a protest being held in front of the courthouse, led by a group from just outside of Richmond that goes around causing a ruckus whenever a symbol of the Confederacy is threatened.
I’ll be blunt; even if you agreed with these people, they were nuts. I stood at the periphery of the protest making an audio recording, snapping photos, and writing notes. I listened as a guy who looked like Grandpa Jones yelled about Judge Martin Clark and then went on a bizarre rant against Abraham Lincoln that kind of lost the audience. I listened to a man go full-throat about the emotional snowflakes who want to erase the past (and it really undermines your point about how the other side is overly emotional when you’re red-faced and screaming and look like your eyeballs are about to explode out of your head).
Most notably, I listened to all the speakers underline the point that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery and their protest wasn’t about racism, which was punctuated by a guy in the crowd shouting “SEND ‘EM BACK TO AFRICA!” Again, I have an audio recording of this.
I’m not gonna lie, I had better days as a reporter. I began to fervently wish that I was interviewing a sweet old lady about a bake sale somewhere.
However, the protest didn’t worry me too much because probably 90 percent of the people there were with the Richmond group. They just travel around pitching fits in various localities around the commonwealth. I wish I had that kind of time.
The real story happened a little later, at a Patrick County Board of Supervisors meeting. The topic of the portrait was brought up, and many members of the public stepped forward to offer their defense of the portrait and request it be put back in the courtroom.
There was only one person in the room who said he supported Clark’s decision to take down the portrait.
He was also the only black person in the room.
This gentleman offered a speech that was gentle, quiet, and all the more powerful because of it. He said he respected the opinions of those who had spoken before him, but he had a slightly different perspective on J.E.B. Stuart, on the Confederate battle flag, and on the Civil War. He said that perspective came from growing up black in a rural community.
The gentleman said that to him, symbols of the Confederacy were a reminder of a painful period, a time when his ancestors were held in chains. He said that he associated those symbols with people who had said horrible, cruel things to him over the years. He spoke of the racial slurs that were hurled at him when he was just a child, of the lasting impact those experiences had on him.
When he finished speaking, a curious thing happened. While many people sat in angry silence, a surprisingly large number of attendees began to applaud. A few people embraced him. And what I quickly discovered was that a number of people in the room knew this man. They had gone to high school with him, or simply knew him because everyone in Patrick County knows everyone else. They considered him a friend.
And then, having acknowledged his words, they continued to approach the podium to speak out against the removal of the portrait.
This final insult rankled me more than anything else I had heard that evening. In a way, it felt crueler than the “Send ‘em back to Africa!” guy who had anonymously exposed his dark heart in the safety of an angry mob.
This man had stood up and spoken plainly and honestly about some of the most painful experiences of his life. He had bared his soul. I cannot even imagine the bravery that must have taken.
And in return, people that he knew, people that he counted as friends, had patted him on the shoulder, thanked him for speaking, and ignored him.
The message was clear: Hey buddy, we like you, but when push comes to shove, I guess we like these symbols a little bit more.
I’ll say this: I have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. I’ve seen the paperwork from where one was held prisoner by the Union Army. There are, on my old family property, two structures built by this man, both still standing. It’s difficult not to feel a certain connection to that past. Frankly, I expect I can lay a better claim to Confederate heritage than a whole lot of folks who fly the battle flag.
And look, in the interest of full disclosure, maybe there’s a part of me that will always want to own my own General Lee, the ’69 Dodge Charger from The Dukes of Hazzard with the Confederate flag painted on its roof. That car is boss.
But when someone points to the iconography of the Civil War era and says, with heart-breaking honesty, that those symbols are a painful daily reminder of the horror that their ancestors endured? When someone says that many of these symbols were erected during the Civil Rights era to intimidate people like them and keep them in line?
My responsibility is to listen to them and believe them.
When someone tells you what hurts them, you don’t get to tell them they’re wrong.