This week provides an occasion for the U.S. government to get real about history, as April 9 is the 150th anniversary of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. The generous terms of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House foreshadowed a multitude of real and symbolic compromises that the winners of the war would make with secessionists, slavery supporters, and each other to piece the country back together. It’s as appropriate an occasion as the Selma anniversary to reflect on the country’s struggle to improve itself. And to mark the occasion, the federal government should make two modest changes: It should make April 9 a federal holiday; and it should commit to disavowing or renaming monuments to the Confederacy, and its leaders, that receive direct federal support.
Two things. First, Crushing Treason in Defense of Slavery Day should absolutely be a national holiday. That should go without saying. It should be a national remembrance of the Confederacy’s evil and the end of the racist slave labor system that underwrote the development of American capitalism (that it was replaced by another racist labor system is a fair enough point).
Second, monuments to Confederates should be renamed but that doesn’t mean those previous names should be forgotten about. In other words, the Edmund Pettus bridge should be renamed the John Lewis bridge and there should be a historical marker there explaining who Pettus was and why the name was changed. That should be done around the nation. There should be no schools receiving federal money named after Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, or Jefferson Davis. But that they were named after those slaveholding traitors should be part of our official history. Similarly, we should rename American military bases named after slaveholding traitors.