Charlottesville and the South’s Complicated Relationship With Its Past | John L. Micek

Charlottesville and the South’s Complicated Relationship With Its Past | John L. Micek

ATHENS, Ga. – All that’s left of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is the steeple.

The red brick is faded and the windows are boarded up. But don’t ask the locals if they’re ever going to tear this monument down.

Because it was here, on April 5, 1980, that a little four-piece, made up of a trio of University of Georgia students and a local record store clerk, played their first-ever show in front of friends and guests.

The world came to know them as R.E.M.

And these days, the steeple of St. Mary’s, which stands at the entrance to a student apartment complex, is known as “The R.E.M. Church.”

As a much younger reporter, living and working in North Carolina, I’d made a handful of trips down there to commune with a band whose music intersects with, and has impacted on, almost every major event of my life.

A recent jaunt there, my first in almost two decades, brought me back into contact with those memories, breathing new life into them.

I bring all this up because, as a country this week, we’ve been talking quite a bit about the enduring power of memory, and the tangled relationship we have with our own history.

The South, I can tell you from living there, working there, and knowing its people, has a complicated relationship with its past. History is woven into this place. Sometimes it’s so thick that you feel like you have to brush it away with your hands.

Ask a southerner for directions and they’re more than likely to tell you to drive a bit and then make a left where something used to be.

I loved my time there. I loved the sounds, smells and feel of the place. Southerners are kind, generous, open-hearted, faithful and proud. And they’re just as full of maddening contradictions as the rest of us.

So if there is any good that’s come out of last week’s horrific violence in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va., it’s that as a nation, we’ve been forced to confront the contradictions in our history and deal with them head on.

We’ve been forced to confront the falseness of the claim that “there are two sides” to every story. Because, in some moral arguments, there just aren’t.

There is, for instance, no “other side” to the symbols of a short-lived, self-styled independent nation, founded by traitors to the United States, that existed solely to preserve a repugnant institution that kept millions of people in bondage.

That’s the same reason why you won’t find monuments to Nazi leaders in public places in Germany. There is no “other side” to Nazism — an unqualified evil responsible for the slaughter of millions.

Which does not mean we should not talk about it, debate it or argue it. Fortunately, there is just such a place for a discussion of those odious symbols of our past, those stains on our national consciousness:

They’re called classrooms and museums, where those symbols can be placed in their proper context.

It’s not the public square, paid for the tax dollars of all (including the descendants of slaves), where they can serve as rallying points for hateful groups who stand in opposition to the very best values this country represents

(And that is hardly putting aside the undeniable truth that many of those monuments were erected decades later, not in tribute to fallen “heroes,” but to reinforce the ugliness that was the Jim Crow South).

In the end, this isn’t about erasing history, or denying that things happened. It’s about confronting it, discussing it, and moving on from it: Not being held prisoner by it.

R.E.M. never forgot the church. They never forgot Athens or their roots. But, critically, recognizing there was no other way for them to grow or to mature, they moved on from it, and put it in context.

It’s a lesson we should all heed.

An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at

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