The Burden of History

Conley Hurst

Last Saturday as I drove into town, I felt the incredible burden of history.

Good-spirited students, professors, and Lexingtonians gathered to participate in the CARE parade, a community-wide initiative to combat racism. The marchers evoked the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy of nonviolent protest and love for one another. It was, after all, Dr. King’s weekend.

As I continued down Nelson Street, I noticed demonstrators of a different sort: Confederate battle flags, Civil War regalia, pick-up trucks with “Heritage, Not Hate” bumper stickers. They all converged at the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery where hundreds of people gathered around General Jackson’s grave brandishing the Confederate flag and glorifying the “Cause” for which it stood. Well, maybe it wasn’t Dr. King’s weekend.

Living in Lexington and attending Washington and Lee, it is hard not to feel the burden of history. Any place with such strong ties to the past, particularly to the Civil War-era, is bound to see that past bubble up into the present. When we force different periods of history to interact, the inevitable, sometimes shocking, ironies occur.  

The Lee-Jackson/Martin Luther King Jr. weekend is the perfect example. Lee and King represent two diametrically opposed perspectives on American history and, indeed, the American experience. Lee lived life according to a sense of duty. King lived life according to a sense of justice. Lee fought a war to defend slavery. King led a movement to eradicate its long-term effects.

Celebrating Lee suggests that America’s best days are in the past, that we should strive to recapture a sense of honor and duty that has gone missing from contemporary society. Celebrating King suggests that America’s best days are yet to come, that by feeding off the legacy of Dr. King we can further eliminate prejudice from our still disjointed society.

The fact that Virginia celebrates the lives of these two men on the same weekend is unfortunate. It discounts the life and legacy of Dr. King, a man who had as profound an impact on the American experience as anyone in the twentieth century. But, in the meantime, what are we to do with this incredible burden of history?

For one thing, it can spur us on to greater understanding of the past. As different as their visions of America were, both Lee and King continue to hold powerful places in the American historical imagination. As such, we should seek to understand why.

Read Lee’s “Farewell Address” to his troops. Within this document, one can see the foundations of the “Lost Cause” myth of the Civil War. But, also, one can’t help but sense why Lee was respected by both northerners and southerners after the war.

Read Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, possibly the greatest speech of the twentieth century. In it, King defined his vision of a unified, post-race America and set a profoundly optimistic example of hope and faith in democracy.

This burden of history extends beyond our Washington and Lee community. Indeed, it is sown into the very fabric of American identity. Our nation’s history is complicated and contradictory. It can be both disheartening and inspiring, sometimes at the same time. But we shouldn’t let this burden of history weight us down. Rather, we must use it to foster a greater understanding of who we are.

By understanding the past in all its complexity, we achieve a fuller vision of what we want to become.