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Report on Rally Against Gastonia Confederate Statue

Well, that was interesting. Yesterday, I headed over to Gastonia to participate in a rally against the Confederate statue currently standing in front of the county courthouse. It was organized by Gaston County Freedom Fighters and a couple of other local groups. I originally thought I'd just go and hold up a sign, but then a woman on 1 of the Facebook pages suggested I speak at the County Commissioner's meeting. I thought, sure, I have a few things to say. If you've been reading my posts for a while, you know racial reconciliation has become a spiritual mission for me. And as a descendant of slave holders and 6 Confederate veterans, I feel like it is my obligation to speak out against racism. In fact, I feel like my Confederate ancestors are seeking redemption, and they're urging me to make better choices today than the ones they made in their lives.

Here's a YouTube link with some rally footage, including a few seconds of me at the very beginning--but blink and you'll miss it.

So I went but didn't get to speak, unfortunately--and y'all, I was ready! Speakers typically get 5 minutes, and I had my words all ready. But so many people signed up, they cut our time down to 2 minutes. No problem--I was an editor after all, so I cut that puppy down to the essentials. To be fair, the statue was not on the official agenda, and speakers were heard only during the open comment portion of the meeting. From what I heard, there were about 55 speakers total, both for and against the statue. We were supposed to be called in the order in which we signed up, but that didn't happen. The chairman appeared to be following his own list, so in some cases people who signed up early never got their chance while others who signed up later were called first. And from my perspective, there were a good number of black people there to speak, however, the majority of those who were called were white. I don't know if that was intentional, but it certainly wasn't a good optic. Toward the end, there were about 10 of us left to speak when the chairman ended the comments. Several people were upset--both white and black--but I witnessed what I consider a clear case of racism in how the guards responded. When a black man complained loudly about not getting to speak, roughly 8 guards (all white) appeared out of nowhere and surrounded him. That did not happen when a older white man made his own complaints.

In the end, the County says it will create a committee to study removing the statue--but you know that is usually code for, "Nothing will be done." I'll keep an eye on the news and may try and speak again if there's an opportunity to do so. If you're curious, the full text of what I was going to say is here:

"My name is Wes Isley, I live in Charlotte and I’m a minister and a chaplain. As a little more about myself, I’ll use the words engraved on the statue that stands in front of this building—I am also a 'Child of the Confederacy.' And as a descendant of 6 Confederate veterans, I am here tonight to ask Gaston County to take down that statue.

"On that statue is also engraved the word 'heritage.' I am fortunate to know my heritage, and I didn’t learn it from any statue. I have ancestors born in America dating back to the year 1640, and all lines of my family have deep North Carolina roots. I am Southern through and through, a lifelong resident of this state. If anyone can speak to Southern heritage and what it is and what it means, it’s me. I know the names of those 6 great-grandfathers who fought for the Confederacy, where they enlisted and some of the battles in which they fought. Now, the statue out front tells me men like my great-grandfathers were 'heroes' and that their service was 'noble.' I strongly disagree. Why? Here’s just 1 reason, a quote from Alexander Stephens, the Confederate Vice President. In an 1861 speech, Stephens said:

Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

"I also know that every line of my family is descended from slaveholders from all over North Carolina. And regardless of whether they owned 1 slave or 100, they still fought to preserve the enslavement of other human beings.

"That is the heritage of the Confederacy, and I state that the men who fought to protect it—then and now—are not heroes, nor was their cause noble. Now, I understand wanting to honor your ancestors, wanting to look back and see that they were brave, resilient or successful. But life doesn’t always serve up everything we want. If I asked everyone here tonight to name a living family member who you don’t like or who is a disappointment or who has made bad choices, I’m certain you could name someone. The truth is that my great-grandfathers were brave and courageous to fight in the Civil War, however, they used those qualities to keep an entire race of people enslaved to protect their own self-interests. Not every cause is just, not every sacrifice is worth celebrating. I did not choose my ancestors, but I can learn from their mistakes. I can make a different choice.

"Did my ancestors suffer during the Civil War? No doubt. In my Isley line, four brothers fought—one was injured and sent home, and I wonder, could he work his farm in Rockingham County? Another brother was killed in combat—what happened to his wife and children? The other 2 brothers including my 2X great-grandfather Dennis were held as prisoners of war for 2 years. I can only imagine what happened to them during that time. And what about their farms? Maybe it was worked by their slaves. I don’t know. In spite of all of that, however, the sufferings and sacrifices of my great-grandfathers pale in comparison to those experienced by the black people they fought to keep enslaved.

"I know some of those names, too, names like Rainey, Alfred, Polly, Jerry, Rachel, and so many more that will never be spoken again. Where is the monument to their heritage? Where is the monument to their bravery and the nobility they had to dig deep within to find in order to endure the sufferings forced upon them? Rainey and Alfred and Polly—they had no choice. But my great-grandfathers did. Even if they felt like they had no choice but to fight—that, too, was a choice. Choices aren’t always easy or convenient—much like the choice to take down this statute. But they can be right. I will not forget my ancestors, but I choose not to celebrate their mistakes. And to Gaston County, you, too, have a choice although it may not be an easy one. Are you heroic and noble enough to make the right choice? Thank you for your attention."

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