White Man Claims

VICKSBURG, Miss. — Slavery, Gordon Cotton explains, “did some good for some people.”

A white retired journalist, Mr. Cotton is propped on a stool in his cluttered kitchen, holding court before me and another black reporter. We showed up unannounced at his home just off a dirt road in a heavily wooded area on the outskirts of this city in the Deep South.

His great-great-grandmother owned about 30 slaves and “she provided nice little homes for them,” he says. “She provided clothing and food and medical care. She had one who made baskets, and she always bought his baskets.”

However society feels about slavery now, Mr. Cotton says, he won’t let it diminish his admiration for ancestors like his great-great-grandmother or spiritual forebears like Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president whom Mr. Cotton, 82, calls his hero.  “Looking back 150, 200 years ago, it was a way of life,” he says. “It may not have been right, but it was the way of life at the time.” 

That personal connection to, and quick empathy for, the Old South has shaped Mr. Cotton’s view that Confederate monuments belong in the public square; that the Davises and Robert E. Lees of the world deserve to be honored, not shamed.  That belief, of course, is the source of a fierce debate, one that reached a violent climax a year ago when white supremacists, rallying against a proposal to remove a statue of General Lee from a public park in Charlottesville, Va., clashed with counterdemonstrators. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd. The ugly episode aggravated the country’s frayed racial dynamic — even more so after President Trump equated the counterprotesters with the white supremacists by blaming “many sides” for the violence.  A year later, public debate over Confederate iconography has quieted down. But have feelings really evolved? Are we any closer as a country to coming to terms with how to confront our shameful history, or are we quietly hurtling toward another eruption of violence?



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