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Op-ed: The speech we wanted to hear after the violence in Charlottesville

Tom Lever, 28, and Aaliyah Jones, 38, both of Charlottesville, put up a sign that says "Heather Heyer Park" at the base of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee monument in Emancipation Park Tuesday, Aug. 15 in Charlottesville, Va.  Alex Fields Jr., is ch
Tom Lever, 28, and Aaliyah Jones, 38, both of Charlottesville, put up a sign that says "Heather Heyer Park" at the base of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee monument in Emancipation Park Tuesday, Aug. 15 in Charlottesville, Va. Alex Fields Jr., is charged with second-degree murder and other counts after authorities say he rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, including Heyer, Saturday, where a white supremacist rally took place.
Julia Rendleman, AP

Like most Americans, I am still thinking about the violence in Charlottesville. I wonder how we got here and what we can do to improve the current political climate in this country. I hoped to hear something from the president that would lead us, all of us, toward reconciliation and healing. But I didn’t hear anything like that from President Trump. I know, however, what I wanted to hear.

For context, I am a native New Yorker who lived in Richmond, Virginia, for over a decade. The Confederate monuments in that city did not offend me at first. With typical Yankee hubris I saw them as cultural oddities; they were second-place trophies for a ragtag band of rebel soldiers who failed in their quest for independence. Or so it seemed. I learned more about the Confederate leaders as I spent more time in the South. Many of the Confederate generals were war heroes for the United States before they took up arms against that same country. Robert E. Lee himself was a graduate of West Point. Southern whites — some, not all — have a lot of pride in those men and their accomplishments. African-Americans, I learned, see them very differently.

And that’s where Trump should have begun his speech. He didn’t do that, so I’ll do it for him:

To those of you who are white and live in the South, I understand that you take pride in the Confederate soldiers and generals who led the Southern rebellion in the 1860s. Many of them did so because they truly believed their cause was right. They did not decide lightly to rebel against their native country. And you probably want to keep their memory alive in the form of monuments and memorials. I will not address the morality of the Confederate monuments here, but I implore you to consider the experience of African-Americans who live in this country.

When African-Americans pass a Confederate monument, they are reminded that slavery once existed in this country. The monuments remind them that slavery once existed in all of the original 13 colonies, and it lasted until the end of our Civil War in other places. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, whose statue stands in the United States Capitol, said that the cornerstone of the Confederacy was the idea that African-Americans were “not equal to the white man.” How do you think modern-day African-American visitors to the Capitol would feel if that statue could talk? How would they feel if Stephens’ famous speech defending slavery as a “natural and normal condition” were engraved in the marble of our republic’s legislative hall for everyone to see?

That speech, known to historians as the “Cornerstone Speech,” was not intended by its author to be trivial or forgettable. It was intended as a firm declaration that slavery was the central issue of the Civil War. There were many other issues, but none was as significant. Try to empathize with African-Americans. They have been in this country longer than many Europeans have. The first slaves from Africa were brought here shortly after the founding of Jamestown. They have spent a long time waiting to be treated as equals.

A couple of years after the leaders of the Confederacy chose to join the South, Union troops were charging the rebel stronghold of Fort Wagner. As was customary in war at that time, the Union had a guard unit to carry its flag during the battle. The man carrying the Stars and Stripes was shot by rebel troops, and was falling to his death, when another soldier grabbed the flag and hoisted it into the air. Because of his will and determination, that flag never touched the ground. That second Union soldier holding the flag was himself shot later in the battle, and he lost enough blood to put him in danger of death. But he never let the flag touch the ground.

That soldier was Sgt. William Carney. And for his actions that day he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was the first African-American ever to receive it. We should honor his work — his noble work — of selflessly fighting to preserve our country. We need to build a monument to him with our own actions and deeds. We must never ally with evil extremists to achieve our political goals. We must treat our countrymen with dignity and respect. And we must preserve the honor of this country in everything we do.

Never let the flag touch the ground.

Dan Ianniello is a construction manager in Liberty, Utah