A terrorist symbol looms over my hometown. It stands for an intolerant, un-American ideology, one that stripped human beings of their dignity and equated them with animals, beasts who could be killed at will. Ominous and unmoving, it is an unholy shrine to rape, torture, and genocide.
It is a monument to Confederate soldiers. And it is just as much a symbol of terrorism as the black flag of ISIS.
I grew up in Cochran, Georgia, a small town located approximately two hours south of Atlanta. With a population of around 6,000 people, Cochran has a charming, Mayberry-esque quality about it and is known around the state for its good schools and devotion to the arts.
Yet beneath this idyllic facade lurks a dark history – a history of racial terrorism. On December 1, 1909, a black preacher named John Harvard was burned at the stake by a horde of racists. In 1912, a mob of 50 white men kidnapped a black man, “quickly strung” him up on a telephone pole, and “riddled” his body with bullets. In 1915 and 1914, white vigilantes murdered black men by dynamiting their homes. On August 6, 1919, a black man was dragged from Cochran’s city jail and later “found hanging from a tree.”
Thankfully, Cochran is no longer the site of such barbarism, but it still plays host to reminders of it. Neighborhoods are divided largely along racial lines, as are churches. In its schools, whites are usually assigned to “high-performing” classrooms while blacks are more often found in “low-performing” ones. The legacies of white supremacy even extend to the dead – the town has one funeral home devoted to African Americans and two that are more geared toward whites.
But perhaps the most troubling reminder of Cochran’s history of white nationalism is the Confederate monument that “graces” the lawn of its police station. That monument was erected in 1910, in the same period when Cochran’s whites engaged in the aforementioned campaign of lynchings. Having been birthed in such an environment, it’s hard to argue that it was merely an effort to honor the departed. Rather, when the marble obelisk reared its ugly head, it was obviously a celebration of a culture of white supremacy, one that spurred a jihadist campaign every bit as destructive as the one waged by ISIS.
Some may take issue with me equating Confederate symbols with those of ISIS. “After all,” they may say, “ISIS is trying to destroy history – look at its demolition of ancient buildings in Syria. We, on the other hand, are just trying to preserve our heritage.” But the truth is, Confederate monuments do erase history. The monument in Cochran portrays an idealized, dishonest image of the past, one that obscures the heart-wrenching reality that hundreds of thousands of black bodies were tortured, raped, and killed while under the Southern yoke. Everyone in Cochran knows of the finely crafted statue that memorializes our town’s contribution to the “Lost Cause.” Hardly anyone has heard of John Harvard’s pre-mature funeral pyre, of the lynching mobs, of the terrified black men obliterated in a blast of TNT.
Many in the South, and in Cochran, have flocked to Donald Trump’s demagogic Islamophobia, unjustifiably equating all Muslims with the extremists in ISIS who have perverted the faith’s theology. They applaud Trump’s attempted Muslim Ban, his gratuitous use of the misleading phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” and his alienating proclamation that “Islam hates us.” They assure themselves that the South is nothing like the deranged jihadists who cut off heads and burn people alive.
But before they engage in such self-congratulation, they should stop and look at their surroundings. They should look at the Confederate flags emblazoned on their vehicles, the rebel banners flying from their flagpoles, and the monuments to the South planted in front of their courthouses.
They should look at these sights and think of their ancestors who branded black bodies, strangled black throats, and violated black women.
They should look at these sights and think – of the black flag of ISIS.