Recent years have seen a new trend in the American polity: the push for the removal of offensive vestiges of the country's history of slavery.
To an outsider, this might seem like a non-issue. After all, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed over 150 years ago, freeing the slaves and presumably setting them on a rapid path to equality.
To an insider, of course, that assumption is known to be naïve nonsense. The century following 1863 saw the replacement of one form of slavery with another. De jure slaves were simply allowed to become de facto slaves now working in the same fields as before except this time as prisoners or indentured sharecroppers.
The Confederate flag is not a harmless symbol of regional pride.
The last 50 years have seen significant progress starting with the civil rights legislation of the Lyndon Johnson era and progressing through reparative efforts like social assistance and affirmative action. Yet America is still plagued with racism.
That's why recent steps to remove certain remnants of the Civil War from the public square are important. The Confederate flag is not a harmless symbol of regional pride. It is a tacit recognition and glorification of those who fought to preserve slavery in the United States.
Likewise, the removal of heroic statues of Confederate leaders and generals is a necessary step in rectifying the historical record and accepting responsibility for a shameful past. The fact that thousands of Americans are still outraged by such actions speaks volumes about how far the country has yet to advance towards the goal of achieving healing and racial harmony.
What is required, of course, is a national apology for the racial injustices of the past and some public method of reparations for the great harm done. I'm not suggesting that there be a cash payment to each descendant of an American slave. I'm not even arguing that we need to provide some people with 40 acres and a mule.
What I am suggesting is that the president of the United States issue a public and heartfelt apology for slavery. At the same time, he or she should acknowledge the great harm and injustice done during the century-and-a-half following 1863 and take steps to remedy that harm.
At long last, there is a National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D. C. That's an important first step but clearly more needs to be done.
A truth and reconciliation commission could be established with the expressed intent of allowing African Americans to publicly talk about the horrible and hateful things done to them and their ancestors. Such a project has worked elsewhere, such as in South Africa and Canada, and it could help immensely to educate the general public and heal ancient wounds.
As part of such a movement, I recommend that the United States recognize the pain that some modern symbols can cause. One place to begin is Statuary Hall in the Capitol building in Washington, D. C. where each state gets to choose two people to be honoured with statues. Despite the fact that states are free to replace statues, the hall still includes several "heroes" of the Confederacy including the pro-slavery traitor Jefferson Davis.
An even more powerful action would be to cleanse American currency of its slaveholder past. Despite the good things they may have done, men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson all have one serious flaw: they were all slaveholders.
The appearance of a person's face on American currency is one of the highest honours that can be accorded. What a strong statement it would make therefore if slaveholders were removed from the one-dollar, two-dollar and 20-dollar bills, and replaced with more modern heroes like Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass and Lyndon Johnson.
Washington, Jefferson and Jackson would still be honoured for their significant contributions but their slave-owning past would no longer be overlooked. Finally, citizens could daily see the recognition given to those who helped to advance the cause of civil rights for all.
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