As you may recall, during the weekend, white supremacists descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia for a “Unite the Right” rally to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park. And as you know, they clashed with a group of counter-protesters which resulted in 3 people killed and at least 35 wounded. Nevertheless, since the 2015 Emmanuel AME Church shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, there has been more attention on Confederate symbols in public spaces. Two years ago, I wrote a post arguing why the Confederate flag is racist and why it should be removed. But it’s not the only Confederate symbol you see in the United States. Across the nation hundreds of Confederate memorials, plazas, and markers dot 31 states standing in public parks, courthouse squares, and state capitols. Plenty of cities, bridges, roads, parks, schools, counties, military bases, and other public areas are named after Confederate icons. And as of 2017, six states observe 9 official Confederate holidays. Since the Charleston shooting, at least 60 of these publicly funded Confederate symbols have been removed or renamed according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. However, as of 2016, the SPLC has documented that over 1,500 of them remain on public property including more than 700 monuments and statues.
Attempts at removing these monuments or renaming public spaces have generated considerable controversy and backlash. Some of these monuments like the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville have become rallying points for white supremacists. Yet, opposition to Confederate monument removal isn’t just limited to the radical right fringe. Southern state lawmakers have proposed legislation banning local governments from removing these controversial landmarks and symbols. One state representative from Mississippi even called for those removing Confederate statues to be lynched. Also, most of these plaques, statues, and monuments are still up thanks to the support of local residents, town councils, and even state governments. Many critics say removing a monument or flag, renaming a public place, or ending a state holiday is tantamount “erasing history.” Proponents often state that these landmarks and emblems represent history and heritage and that efforts to remove them is just political correctness gone too far.
Yet, the “heritage not hate” rationale used to justify public Confederate displays ignores the near-universal heritage of African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved in the South. It also trivializes their pain, their history, and concerns about racism. Not to mention, the “heritage” argument conceals the true history of the Confederacy and the 7 decades of Jim Crow segregation and oppression after Reconstruction. There is no doubt that the Confederacy was founded on white supremacy and that the South fought the Civil War to preserve slavery. Its founding documents and leaders made it perfectly clear. After all it was Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens who said in his 1861 “Cornerstone speech”, “Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” And by defending slavery with gunfire and cannons, the Confederates prolonged the life of an institution which brought indescribable suffering and horror to millions. Through waging war against the Union, they betrayed the United States and killed thousands of their fellow countrymen.
However, despite that Civil War history is well-documented, legions of Southern whites still cling to the Lost Cause myth as a noble Southern endeavor fought to defend the region’s honor and its ability to govern itself in the face of Northern aggression. This is of course, bullshit but it’s a deeply rooted false narrative resulting from many decades of revisionism in the lore and even Southern textbooks seeking to create a more acceptable version of the area’s past. According to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, 48% of Americans cited states’ rights as the reason for the Civil War despite which doesn’t hold up when you include the Fugitive Slave Act, Bleeding Kansas, and the Dred Scott Decision. Not to mention, all the pro-slavery and white supremacist sentiments in Confederate documents. Still, these Confederate monuments and symbols in the South are very much a part of that effort. Historian Thavolia Glymph noted that the Lost Cause became so endemic that it passed, “off legend as history so successfully that the legend came to be remembered as the history.” Though Southerners started honoring the Confederacy with statues and symbols almost immediately after the Civil War, most dedications of Confederate monuments and other symbols took place during the early 20th century which lasted well into the 1920s and from the early 1950s all through the 1960s. Why these periods? Well, the first spike happened during the period when states enacted Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise newly freed blacks and re-segregate society. This period also saw the dramatic resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan thanks to D.W. Griffith’s 1916 film The Birth of a Nation. The second spike in Confederate dedications happened during the civil rights movement, leading to white segregationist backlash. Even in the 21st century, these monuments keep cropping up, including 35 in North Carolina. Therefore, it’s very clear that many of these Confederate monuments and symbols exist not to honor history, heritage or the fallen but to enforce and perpetuate white supremacy through legal and even violent means.
Not only do these monuments instill white supremacy on the American landscape, they also perpetuate myths that screw up the American historical narrative known as the Lost Cause myth. When you erect a monument for someone or group, you also determine how they should be remembered as well as enshrine everything they stood for as noble and just. These Confederate monuments conjure images of resplendent generals and brave soldiers fighting for a noble but lost cause. Memorials to Confederate soldiers extol their heroism and valor or sometimes details of particular battles or local units. But some go so far as to glorify the Confederacy’s cause. One notable example is a monument in Anderson County, South Carolina reading, “The world shall yet decide, in truth’s clear, far-off light, that the soldiers who wore the gray, and died with Lee, were in the right.” But in reality, their cause was white supremacy and slavery which are anything but noble. They also conceal the economic exploitation, political oppression, and widespread violence black people faced when these monuments were built.
But while dedicating Confederate memorials for fallen soldiers is one thing, leaders are another. Many of these statues of Confederate leaders conjure a perception of them as gallant and noble heroes fighting for what was right. As an activist in Memphis told Al Jazeera, “Kids see these statues and think they’re for great people. These statues don’t say anything about the atrocities.” And they don’t usually reflect who these leaders are. Robert E. Lee is clearest example of this since he’s had more monuments and places with his name and/or likeness than any other leader in the Confederacy. And he’s certainly its most admired champion who’s continually praised as a brilliant strategist as well as a kind, benevolent figure who hated slavery and secession. But he fought for the South out of duty to the Virginia he so loved. Except that’s not the real Robert E. Lee. Lee did make some grandiose sentiments in favor of liberty on occasion. But he was not only fine with owning slaves, he fought a court case to keep his father-in-law’s slaves who’ve been promised their freedom after the old man died. He lost Documents show he was anything but the kind, benevolent man he’s portrayed as, at least as far as his family’s slaves are concerned. In fact, Lee opposed virtually any pro-emancipation cause that would’ve actually freed slaves and harshly condemned abolitionists. During his invasion into Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would abduct free blacks for enslavement. His men also massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender during the Battle of Crater and paraded the survivors through the streets of Petersburg, Virginia. Lee never discouraged such behavior because he didn’t believe blacks shouldn’t be treated as human beings. And he certainly believed in white supremacy after the war since he argued against black enfranchisement, raged against Republican efforts to enforce racial equality in the South, and allowed students at Washington College to establish their own Klu Klux Klan chapter, rape black schoolgirls, and attempt lynchings. Besides, when the Civil War broke out, Lee first asked permission to sit out of the war altogether. While he did anguish whether to maintain his oath of loyalty to the US Army or fight on behalf of his state and slavery, he chose the latter. Fittingly enough, he sent a letter of resignation to the War Department via slave. Lee then wrote another letter expressing that he didn’t believe Virginia yet had full justification to secede, he knew he chose against the wishes of his wife and children (as well as several other family members). Besides, Virginians like Winfield Scott, George Henry Thomas, his own cousins Fitzgerald and Samuel Phillips Lee, future West Virginians, and 40% of Virginia’s officers remained loyal to the Union. As for being a brilliant strategist, well, despite being an accomplished tactician and winning individual battles, many historians consider his decision to fight against a more industrialized and densely populated North as a fatal strategic error. But even if he was as great military commander, Lee was still responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of black people. Lee’s elevation as hero is a key part of Lost Cause mythology designed to erase slavery as the cause of the Civil War and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one. Perhaps the most fitting monument to General Robert E. Lee is the national military cemetery on his lawn at Arlington. If you want a Confederate general to idolize, may I suggest James Longstreet? At least he embraced equal rights for blacks after the Civil War and took on white supremacists in New Orleans with an integrated police force. But that’s why Lost Cause folks hate his guts.
Even more disturbing is that many of these Confederate monuments aren’t just in the states that seceded from the Union. You have plenty in border states fighting for the Union, in Union states, and states that in 1861 were mere territories. One particular example is Kentucky whose government didn’t side with the Confederacy and two thirds of Kentuckians fought for the Union. But you wouldn’t know that from a state swamped in Confederate monuments. And one of these has to be a 35-story obelisk at Jefferson Davis’s birthplace in Fairview. In Arizona, the oldest Confederate Memorial was dedicated in 1943 while the newest went up in 2010. Of course, they were erected by the thousands of white Southerners who moved there and took their fondness for intimidating blacks with them. In Helena, Montana, a Confederate Memorial Fountain has sat in its Hill Park since 1916 which author James W. Loewen said, “tells that the Confederacy should be revered even as far north as Montana.” You might wonder why there are Confederate monuments outside the former Confederacy since they seem to no reason to exist there. But when you figure that segregation wasn’t just restricted to the South but stretched across a nation more concerned about unity in the face of foreign threats than rights for black people, it makes a lot more sense.
Nevertheless, these enduring tributes to white supremacy and black enslavement still stand in a nation that hasn’t moved past America’s original sin and has refused to address racism’s pernicious and ubiquitous nature. To say that these Confederate monuments only as New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has said, “immediately begs the questions, why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks. But as the immense presence of Confederate monuments and symbols show there’s a lot of love for the losing side of an unjust cause. There should be nothing but condemnation and dishonor for those who seceded from the Union and fought for the privilege of keeping black people under involuntary servitude. Removing Confederate symbols and monuments will not erase history nor does it denigrate anyone’s Southern heritage. But the effort to topple them is about more than symbolism. Rather it’s about starting a conversation about a community’s shared values and beliefs along with our understanding as a nation. It’s about acknowledging, understanding, and reconcile past injustices as we address those of today. And lastly, it’s about us as a people being able to choose a better future for ourselves and make right what was wrong. Our historical monuments not only depict our history but also enshrine value we choose to promote. As a nation founded on the principles of liberty, equality and democracy, these Confederate monuments stand to extol values anathema to such ideas. Confederate monuments don’t belong on a pedestal in a public space. So it’s long past time to take them down.