Connor Towne O’Neill has written an exceptional book about white supremacy in the United States that resonates clearly during these tense times of police brutality, Black protests, riots in the streets and a presidential election with racial undertones.
“Down Along with That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy” focuses on monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate cavalry general in the Civil War who was lionized by the South but demonized as “that devil” in the North.
Nathan Bedford Forest was no Robert E. Lee. In addition to being a slave-owning rebel who fought to fracture the United States, Forrest made a fortune buying and selling slaves. He brutally massacred Black Union soldiers. He was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
One can hardly imagine a more perfect object of scorn during these days of removing controversial Confederate monuments throughout the South. There are 31 memorials to Forrest in his native Tennessee alone, and plenty of people who would like to take them down.
And plenty of people who would like to keep them up.
O’Neill, a 2007 graduate of Penn Manor High School who teaches at Auburn University, talked with dozens of Southerners on both sides of the issue. He provides a journalist’s view of a culture war based in part on arguments never settled by the Civil War.
He discusses four Forrest memorials — three in Tennessee and one in Selma, Alabama. “I had decided to use the Forrest monument,” he explains, “as a way of organizing the past, to make some sense of the present.”
As monuments come down throughout the South, Forrest’s advocates have fiercely guarded his. There is a certain reverence for the man that is difficult for an outsider to understand. O’Neill associates that reverence primarily with the growth of groups of white supremacists.
“They hold a deep fear of change,” O’Neill observes, “driven, more deeply by a fear that should nonwhite people take power, they will subject white people to the same oppression and violence and alienation from power that white people have for so long practiced.”
O’Neill blames white supremacists for much of the nation’s discord. He clearly sympathizes with Black activists who have worked to remove monumental manifestations of white supremacy.
What distinguishes this book from other stories of the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow, lynching and voter suppression is that O’Neill believes all whites are implicated in the decision to treat Blacks as an inferior race. All whites are not to blame for slavery and its legacy, he says, but all are part of the country’s current condition.
Addressing centuries of repression of Blacks, O’Neill believes, will require moving beyond monument removal to creating equal access to quality education, jobs and health care.
Before that can happen, he concludes, “we must first come to a common understanding of the past — an understanding grounded in the acknowledgment of all that has been taken in the name of whiteness.”
This book makes readers think hard about their place in this process.
O'Neill, son of Sally Towne and Dan O'Neill, of Manor Township, will host a virtual discussion about his book at 7 p.m. Monday at Aaron's Books in Lititz. Register under the “Events”' tab at AaronsBooks.com or call 717-627-1990.
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes "The Scribbler'' column every Sunday. He welcomes comments and contributions at email@example.com.