By King Salim Khalfani
In a small gift shop in Atlanta’s airport, a little boy picked out a toy telescope that he wanted ever so badly. When he asked his cousin to purchase it, she refused and ordered him to put that back and pick something else. She later explained to him that the toy had a Confederate symbol and the word Dixie on it, and what those symbols meant to people of African descent. I was that little boy.
On Aug. 24, 1977, I unwittingly became a soldier in the ongoing civil war that continues to be fought to this day in Richmond, Virginia. Yes, I admit it. I was not born and raised here and God help me, I migrated here from the dreaded North. I was considered a Union Army soldier.
During freshman orientation we were advised about the Southern culture here and advised how to carry ourselves to avoid a fate similar to Emmett Till’s in Money, Miss. At Virginia Union University, the late Dr. Edward D. McCreary, professor of religion and philosophy, shared with his students that at that time Chesterfield County had the highest concentration of Ku Klux Klansmen and women in the nation. The late Pearl Mankins, professor of history, warned us about Monument Avenue and the statues honoring the Confederate leadership. I had no idea what I had parachuted into.
The struggle to place a statue of Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue that was introduced by former City Councilman Henry “Chuck” Richardson was one of the nastiest clashes of this ongoing saga. It earned Richardson lifetime pariah status with Confederate sympathizers.
I worked for the Virginia State Conference NAACP for 23 years. Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Oliver W. Hill and others founded that organization and – along with Spottswood Robinson, Martin A. Martin and the venerated Samuel W. Tucker — formed the NAACP’s Legal Counsel that filed and won more civil rights lawsuits than anyone else in any other Southern state. The Sen. Harry Byrd Machine fashioned Massive Resistance rather than desegregate public schools. Confederate symbols and those statues set the tone for those legal battles.
Whenever there was an issue concerning the Confederacy, cross burnings, Black church burnings, Civil War or Confederate army re-enactments, our phones would ring off the hook. Other than Sa’ad El-Amin, I received more threats and hateful messages on the office voicemail, written mail and in the comments sections of newspapers than anyone. Critical thinking determined that our tax dollars should not be spent to maintain the statues of the men who sought to continue Africans’ enslavement and to expand that institution from sea to shining sea.
The statues should be maintained with private money, and they belong in a museum. If the statues are maintained with City of Richmond and Commonwealth of Virginia tax dollars, that means that the city and the state condone white supremacy and enslavement. It is a shame that it took the execution of nine people at prayer meeting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., to finally have a discussion about the meaning of these Confederate symbols on public property. After photos of the killer with Confederate props went viral and after his hate-filled words were reported, people nationwide finally began to speak up and out.
A local psychology professor is embarking upon a study on the effects of Monument Avenue on the local African population. Some have deduced that it has caused Post Traumatic Enslavement Syndrome. We are insulted, offended and disrespected daily by their presence, and the fact that we pay to maintain their existence is a slap in the face.
More than a few residents don’t use Monument Avenue because of the statues. Others who do use it try to ignore them. I was once directed to one of the monuments and told to read what it said on the top of it. It read, “This is to inculcate our great ideology into future generations of our children, in perpetuity,” or something to that effect.
That said it all to me. Those statues were meant to teach white supremacy forever, not just to white children but to mine as well. A few years ago, a state legislator told the people of Virginia to just get over it.
The statues need to be moved to private property or a museum. They should be maintained with private funds. Anything less is unacceptable!
King Salim Khalfani is senior consultant at Commonwealth Consultation LLC and former executive director of the Virginia State Conference NAACP. Contact him at TheSuten@gmail.com.
This article appeared also in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.