We can’t help but be shaped by the experiences of our youth and the events of our past.
Last week in the heart of one of America’s poshest zip codes, a consecrated bronze memorial to Robert E. Lee was chiseled from its sturdy granite foundation. Unencumbered, then it was chained to a giant crane and hoisted upwards into the bright blue Texas September sky. Next, the bulky wrath of ire was loaded onto a reinforced flatbed truck. Ultimately, the disruptive shrine and controversial symbol which instilled pride in some and to many others epitomized overt racism, discrimination, and hate was carted away to its final resting place somewhere outside the city, presumably never to return again.
Despite the sweltering humidity of the 90-degree day, a police SWAT team wore bullet-proof vests and black metal helmets. Armed with assault rifles better suited for a military ambush rather than a typical weekday afternoon at the park, the forces remained on high alert for several hours, prepared for signs of resistance and violence. However, there was no resistance. There was no violence. No one within this local community seemed to care very much. Once the statue’s removal was completed, there was only a collective sigh of relief accentuating a much wider unspoken understanding which in some small way amounted to a city’s mass reparation.
Alas, the time to do the right thing had clearly come and although this moment had certainly been way past due for the great majority who viewed a Confederate monument in the 21st Century as culturally indecorous, racially offensive, and completely out of step with modern-day sentiment, we must also willfully acknowledge that it’s never too late to do what is a noble and proper deed.
In Dallas in the year 2017, the likeness of that bearded old general — seemingly so valiant and brazenly defiant riding so high and mighty upon his horse with a sentry in tow — did manage to make one last momentous stand here in the park named in his honor. Though the real Lee is long dead and buried somewhere more than a thousand miles away, he waged one final ill-fated battle, his lost cause buttressed by an inexplicable lingering cult of adoration bolstered by a disdainful minority of reactionaries and historical revisionists who remain grotesquely insensitive to the very real scars of their and our history solely caused by the masochistic abuses of people of one skin pigment versus another.
And here it was, in Dallas, where he suffered yet another stinging defeat to a force greater than his own, this final humiliation not administered by a superior opposition army nor the blasts of angry cannons, but rather a perfectly legal and peaceful process set forth by democratically-elected local officials following the laws of this nation and guided by common human decency. The Dallas City Council decided to act in unison and align themselves with the righteous principles of this century, instead of remaining preposterously tethered to some mythological mindset of a faux-romanticized era some 150 years earlier. No one much feared the backlash of bigots anymore.
When the news of Lee’s final surrender here hit social media, the popular reaction elsewhere was quite predictably tainted by ignorance of this area’s multifarious past and liberated present. Fact is, Lee lost his relevance in and around Dallas long before his haughty likeness was wheeled away. Accordingly, I’d like to tell you more about those earlier defeats, those notable occasions commensurate with the victories of so many engaged in fighting the good fight, especially since I grew up in Dallas and spent a fair amount of my childhood living in and going to school in that neighborhood, all giving me a unique perspective of what removing Lee’s statue really means.
Lee’s bronze statue was erected in 1926 during a time when racism wasn’t in the shadows but was the law of the land. Even though we consider this cringe-worthy, we must also agree that the memorial was marvelous work of skill and craftsmanship. For 91 years, Lee’s statue stood at the center of what was known as “Lee Park.” That was before the city council changed the name to Oak Lawn Park. Indeed, Oak Lawn Park seems appropriate since it’s been one of Dallas’ most eclectic neighborhoods for a very long time. The park lies within a shady winding valley nestled along the twists and bends of Turtle Creek, located about two miles north of Downtown Dallas. The Turtle Creek area is canopied with picturesque oak trees, framed by perfectly manicured lawns, interspersed with hundreds of $10 million-plus homes that resemble castles, and several dozen high-rise condos. It’s a really great place to live and one of the hottest real estate markets in the country, provided you can afford it.
Oak Lawn been like this for as long as I can remember. Four decades ago, I attended elementary school nearby, which is still there today. Holy Trinity Catholic School was within walking distance of Lee Park, on Oak Lawn Blvd. Holy Trinity became famous when the priest in charge of the school administered last rights to President John F. Kennedy after he was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.
I have other memories, too. I bought my first record album just a few blocks away from Lee Park, in 1971. Music has always been important to me and a source of immeasurable joy. I recall the huge record store where I used to hang out and spent many afternoons right after the bell rang and school let out. In those days, there wasn’t any Internet where you could watch and hear popular music in an instant. None of us kids had record collections. So, it was really a big deal to buy the latest hit single you heard playing on the radio, or an album — provided that you had the money. The first album I ever bought was “Hey Jude,” an album compilation of hit singles by The Beatles released right after the group officially broke up. Actually, it wasn’t even an album. It was an 8-track tape. Remember 8-track tapes?
About that time, like many other big American cities, Dallas began experiencing anti-Vietnam War protests. Some even turned violent. Two of the largest protests were held at Lee Park, in 1970 and 1971. Although I was just 9 at the time, I still hung out at the ’71 mass gathering because it was really cool to see so many strange-looking people known as “hippies,” and watch the excitement. Their music was cool, too. I also remember the movie theatre located next to Lee Park capitalizing on the chaotic situation on the streets by showing “The Concert for Bangladesh” on the giant screen, which was quite unusual at the time (I went and saw the music documentary — twice). Here’s a file photo that was taken that day (above) with a link to a nicely-written blog story by a progressive writer who remembers the local activism of that volatile period. [DALLAS 1960S ACTIVISTS REVISITED]
There’s a beautiful irony to this story. No doubt, Robert E. Lee would spin in his grave at the idea of thousands of counter-culture hippies protesting a patriotic war in a park named in his honor. Civil rights activists also held several rallies at Lee Park. But the peace movement, blaring rock n’ roll, and cries for racial equality were nothing compared to what was to come next.
Starting sometime around the late 1970’s, the districts known as Oak Lawn and Cedar Springs began to attract increasing numbers of gay people. Today, within sight of where Lee’s statue once stood, tens of thousands of openly gay, lesbian, and transgender citizens have come to proudly call this neighborhood their home. Understandably, most of these trendy locals don’t have much regard for nostalgia or an old relic of the past intended to pay tribute to someone who fought to preserve the right of his rebel movement to enslave millions of people. Such a man doesn’t deserve a statue. He deseerves burial in an ash heap. [Here’s an interesting ARTICLE on the Oak Lawn “Gayborhood.”]
So, if Lee would have been pissed off before about the hippies and rockers and Blacks taking over his park, he most certainly might have shit a bronze brick at the notion of thousands of free-spirited activists marching in the annual Gay Pride parade, many of them gathered around his antiquated perch of isolation. Once someone even stuck a gay rainbow flag in Lee’s hand, seemingly waving the banner of pride atop his horse. Oh, the irony indeed.
I didn’t expect to revisit these memories nor experience an emotional reaction to the news blip of Lee’s vintage statue being removed. I doubt many others, even living in Dallas, gave it much of a thought. It’s pretty clear to most of us now that the old relic has no place here. While we should study and remember our history and protect it when appropriate so that we might learn from it, that’s a very far cry from memorializing its most painful chapters and honoring those traitors who personally contributed to so much mass misery.
When the Civil War waged to the east, Dallas was then a small town. It played virtually no role in the short-lived southern Confederacy. Nonetheless, after that bloody conflict a long time ago the locals inexplicably decided to honor this man who symbolized the farce of their self-professed superior cultural heritage. Even though Robert E. Lee wasn’t defeated on any battlefields here, he was ultimately upstaged many times over by the very people he would have disdained had been alive to witness what came later — including civil rights activists, war protestors, and tens of thousands of gays conspicuously dancing in the shadows of where a bronzed shrine once stood.
This was Lee’s final surrender and a notable victory for those still willing to fight a noble battle in a centuries-old conflict that has not yet ended.