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Racial Justice and the Long Shadow of Gettysburg

Frank Barry
·11 mins read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I thought it was a quiet night in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t. As my wife and I settled into a campsite beside Dutch Wonderland — the amusement park built by a potato farmer in 1963, now closed for Covid — a tragedy was occurring in town. The mother of 27-year-old Ricardo Munoz had called the county’s crisis intervention center — her son struggled with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and hadn’t taken his medication — but another family member called 911. Minutes later an officer arrived, Munoz charged with a knife, a shot was fired, and the young man lay dead on the sidewalk.

Protesters gathered at the downtown police station demanding answers. As the hours passed, the crowd grew, the tension rose, and the lid came off. People hurled objects that smashed windows. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets. Each side blamed the other for the escalation.

Early the next morning, the streets are quiet. I listen to a handful of people who had been in the thick of it.

Nicole Vasquez: “We were chanting and I feel like we had good energy with the people that were here” — about 200, she says. I ask what they chanted.

“What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.This is what democracy looks like.No justice, no peace. [Expletive] the racist police.”

Minister Jerona Rokins Green: “We all got hit with the tear gas and that’s no joke, my throat still hurt. My whole face burning. Whole face burning. She got hit with a rubber bullet” — the woman beside her shows me a large red welt on her lower leg. But just imagine “if somebody would’ve gotten hit in their face with that?” In June, a protester in Washington lost his eye to a pepper-ball shot.

Alaak Deu: “At the end of the day, who’s supposed to keep their peace when they’re getting shot with this?” — he holds up the rubber bullet. “What did they expect from an angry city? Countless and countless times they’ve been telling us, yeah, keep your peacefulness. We keep our peacefulness and then the radical ones come out after that … and they’re not going to listen to us. They don’t want to hear because you know what they love to say to us? ‘You’ve been peaceful for too much. Look where it’s got us.’”

All these years later, we’re only beginning to find out what happens to a dream deferred.

One of the people arrested, a White student at Franklin & Marshall College, had bail set at $1 million. Her father told a reporter he was “completely floored. It’s really just vindictive. You want to have faith in the system because it’s the only one we have, and then you experience this. I understand why my daughter would protest in the first place.”

Twenty-five miles west in downtown York, James Smith, one of the three Irish immigrants to sign the Declaration of Independence, lies in the churchyard of First Presbyterian, whose history is a microcosm of the nation’s divisions and efforts to overcome them. Guy Dunham, a former associate pastor, tells me that York was an early stop on the Underground Railroad, and also the only county in Pennsylvania not to vote for Abraham Lincoln; Confederate flags still dot the landscape outside the city. First Presbyterian had abolitionist pastors — including one who landed in jail after a fistfight with a Southern sympathizer — and a century later, in the midst of the racial turmoil of the 1960s, it merged with a Black church, one of only three such Presbyterian mergers in the country, according to Dunham.

The merger bitterly divided the White congregation, but racism wasn’t the only challenge facing the newly integrated community. Who would exercise control over the liturgy, the purse strings and everything else? Within a decade, Dunham says, “a number of Black families left. And the reason being is that they never sensed that there was going to be any representation of African-Americans” on staff.

When the minister from that era returned in 2012 to mark the church’s 250th anniversary, he expressed regret for not doing more to integrate the pastoral staff. It wasn’t until 2019, more than 50 years after the merger, that the church made its first Black hire, a director of youth and college ministries. To succeed, integration requires more than a welcome mat. It requires power sharing — and giving up power, especially to people who look different, can be hard. Southerners fought a war to prevent it, followed by generations of rearguard actions. Even among the most progressive-minded, when principle and power conflict, power often prevails. Can that ever change?

The congregation at First Presbyterian skews older, as many churches do, but Dunham finds optimism in the urgency of young people. “The younger generation just doesn’t have time to pussyfoot around, to try to be diplomatic. They just say it. They just say it and sometimes in language that older generations might find offensive. We have to say to them, ‘You know what, folks? Just get over it. Get over it. Hear the passion and the sentiment behind it. You don’t have to like it, but at least hear what they’re saying and the truth that is behind it.’”

Onward to Gettysburg, the military-turned-political battlefield, where armed men stood guard around Confederate statues this past July 4 after rumors spread that antifa would be descending to remove them. But the political battles here began long ago — and long ago, the South won. History is usually written by the victors. Not at Gettysburg.

“When people understand how the battle took place, they see it from almost entirely the Confederate perspective.” I’m walking the battlefield with Peter Carmichael, the thoughtful and passionate director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. “So the generals who capture people’s attention here, Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, George Pickett — there are not many people who can tell you even George Gordon Meade’s name.” Earlier that morning, I had walked by Meade’s headquarters without realizing it. “No one's putting a monument there. No one’s putting a flower there. No one’s putting the U.S. flag there. You go over to the Lee Monument, you’ll see people putting Confederate flags and all those kinds of things.

“It’s so telling, I think, shocking that in one of the pivotal battles of the war, in which there is a decisive union victory, that when people come here, they look at that final act of this great three-day battle — and they look at it from the Virginia monument, from where Lee was at the very end of Pickett's charge — a man who unquestionably violated his oath to this country — and people walk away looking at his great failure in the war with the degree of sympathy and sadness for him.”

The debate still raging over Confederate monuments and memory began not long after the war ended. “There was well into the 20th century resistance by union veterans to do anything on this battlefield that would commemorate the actions of Confederate soldiers” — even as they reconciled with their old enemies. Reunions occurred between soldiers on each side in 1888 and again in 1913, though no marker commemorates them, as Carmichael points out. “That they could forgive one another, that they could look to the future … that’s a remarkable thing. Some might even say that there’s evidence of American exceptionalism there. How many other civil wars don’t end with the leaders of that war lined up and getting shot?”

But forgiveness was only half the challenge. “The big and important question that faced Americans after the war, I think it should face us now. And there’s no easy answer, and it’s simply this: Can we have justice and have reconciliation? Can you have it both ways?”

We will have to, because I heard the answer to his question in Lancaster, and we have heard it in cities and towns across America: No justice, no peace.

After 155 years, the need for regional reconciliation — which delivered a century of Jim Crow subjugation and Confederate mythmaking in the South — may finally be waning enough that racial justice can take center stage. Carmichael sees hope in an education system that has changed his students’ perspective. Not long ago, “Most people did not believe the war was over slavery. Most people called Grant a drunk. [Now] there is at least a recognition that the legacy of slavery and emancipation is certainly felt today. And that we have to be honest with that past. And we see that in these Black Lives Matter protests, we see an awareness, we see a knowledge, we see a belief that racism is institutionalized. That’s a sea change.”

Before leaving Gettysburg, I stop into the Ragged Edge cafe to meet with its owner, Jake Schindel, president of the borough council, and Charles Gable, the borough manager. In the wake of the George Floyd killing, someone living near Gettysburg, South Dakota, called Gable and asked if he could do anything about the South Dakota town’s police department using the Confederate flag on its uniforms and vehicles.

Gable and Schindel were reluctant to weigh in. “Personally,” says Schindel, “I do feel like the nation does need to have a reckoning on racism and slavery, but I’m also like, ‘OK, as a member of council, is it my position to be telling another place how to run their town, as much as I might disagree with it?’”

But then they began doing some research and learned that their sister city was founded by Union soldiers — and that the city adopted the Confederate symbol only in 2009. “If you look at their police cars,” says Schindel, “this thing rolls up with this emblem on it. Right there is a Confederate flag. I mean, how much more Dixie can you be in Gettysburg, South Dakota?” In addition, they learned that Gettysburg, South Dakota, is home to Selwyn Jones, George Floyd’s uncle. Gable called him to ask if he would support the council sending a letter. He would.

After voting down Schindel’s proposal to end the sister city relationship, the council approved a diplomatic letter Gable drafted explaining why their government supports Confederate symbols and monuments on the battlefield — it is effectively an enormous museum — but not for any government use. “These Confederate symbols recognize our troubled past, but they do not honor that past — rather they now exist to teach the wrongs of the past.” It’s the right principle — and yet, as Carmichael explained, it’s hardly the impression that many people take away from their battlefield visit.

That’s a challenge for the National Park Service, and Carmichael says the agency is grappling with it. But the letter’s primary message succinctly captured why momentum for removing Confederate symbols from state flags and city squares has continued to build: “The nonuse of Confederate symbols on our public property affirms for us and future generations that we have learned valuable lessons from the past and pledge to not only not repeat it, but to continue to pursue a more perfect American union.”

The South Dakota town removed the Confederate emblem over the summer, but whether the letter had anything to do with it, Gable and Schindel can’t say — they received no response. “Honestly, I’m a little disappointed by it,” Gable says. “I had hoped that we would have heard something from someone.”

The letter struck me as the kind of respectful and reasoned discussion we need more of, with the lack of response indicative of our hesitancy to engage in it — a topic I’ll ask people about down the road. But for now, as I leave the cafe, I order an everything bagel with smoked salmon cream cheese — my deep skepticism turning to enormous surprise with the first bite. It may be the best bagel I’ve had outside New York, or maybe a week of camping food is getting to me. Regardless, an urgent matter awaits, and we head off to an RV repair shop a few miles down the road. The pedal that flushes the toilet has fallen off and won’t go back on, making the earlier problem with our refrigerator seem like a minor inconvenience.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Frank Barry is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. This column is part of a series, “Looking for Lincoln: A Portrait of America at a Crossroads.” It features reports from Barry’s journey west along the Lincoln Highway, a zigzagging network of local roads running from Times Square to the Golden Gate Bridge, from Sept. 11 to Election Day.

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