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Symbols in the South: A turning point for Confederate monuments

u.s. history

Symbols in the South: A turning point for Confederate monuments

The debate over the removal of Civil War monuments came to a boiling point in Charlottesville, but the statues have less to do with celebrating the Confederacy and more to do with the political climate in which they were erected, Eric Andrew-Gee writes

A statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that stands in the middle of a traffic circle on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia.

Robert E. Lee disapproved of Civil War monuments.

"I think it wiser," the top Confederate general wrote, just a few years after the end of the conflict, "to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife …"

Nearly a century and a half later, the United States has been visited by civil strife again – this time over a monument to Lee in Charlottesville, Va.

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This week, not just Klansmen and neo-Nazis but the U.S. President and a plurality of Americans opposed a local decision to remove the statue.

Some made the case that even ugly parts of the past should be remembered, but a far-right rally around the statue was the scene of racist chants and led to the death of a counterprotester last weekend.

The statute of Robert E. Lee sits at the center of the park formerly dedicated to him, the site of recent violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va.

Opponents of the monument and hundreds of others like it, meanwhile, argue that men who took up arms in defence of slavery and against the Union should not be publicly honoured and that those who argue otherwise are turning a blind eye to the country's history of white supremacy – or, worse, embracing it.

Amid this bitter debate, it is odd to think that Lee may have been on the side of those who would bring the statues down. That possibility throws into relief the Confederacy's long shadow in U.S. history, the meaning its monuments have carried through the years, and the impetus for making them disappear from public view today.

At stake is not just a few pieces of stone and bronze, or the outcome of the present strife, but how the United States decides to view some of the darkest and most contested chapters in its history.

Protesters calling for the removal and the preservation of Confederate-era monuments face off in dueling demonstrations, Sunday, May 7, 2017, in New Orleans.


When the breakaway Southern states of the Confederacy lost the Civil War, their territory was in ruins, ravaged by four years of fighting.

This broken land had its heroes – Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Lee – but the South was in no state to honour them with statues.

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"The South was exhausted … impoverished. People weren't putting up monuments," said Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University in New York.

"What money there was for monuments, was spent on cemeteries," said Joan Waugh, a scholar of the period at UCLA.

Yet today, even as momentum for their removal seems to gather by the hour, about 700 monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders stand across the United States, according to research by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Another several hundred public sites are named after Confederate figures or contain Confederate symbols.

In the South especially, these sites can feel ubiquitous. Regina Bradley, an African-American professor of English at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta, said they are hard to avoid in her part of the country.

"There's Confederate monuments everywhere," she said.

Public institutions, monuments,

and statues bearing Confederate names

Schools

Monuments on courthouse grounds

Other sites (including monuments)

1861

1865

Formation of

the Ku Klux Klan

1870

1880

1890

1896

Plessy v. Ferguson

1909

NAACP

founded

1900

1910

1915

Klan resurgency

as “Invisible Empire”

1920

1921

Tulsa race riots

1930

1943

Detroit race riots

1940

1954

Brown v. Board of Education

1950

1957

Little Rock

Nine

1960

1963

George Wallace’s “stand

in the schoolhouse door”

at University of Alabama

1970

1964

Civil Rights Act of 1964

1980

1965

Voting Rights Act of 1965

1990

1968

Assassination of

Martin Luther King, Jr.

2000

2010

2016

ADAPTED BY THE GLOBE AND MAIL FROM “WHOSE

HERITAGE?: PUBLIC SYMBOLS OF THE CONFEDERACY,”

BY THE SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER.

Public institutions, monuments, and statues

bearing Confederate names

Schools

Monuments on courthouse grounds

Other sites (including monuments)

1861

1865

Formation of

the Ku Klux Klan

1870

1880

1890

1896

Plessy v. Ferguson

1900

1909

NAACP

founded

1910

1915

Klan resurgency

as “Invisible Empire”

1920

1919

“Red Summer”

race riots

1921

Tulsa

race riots

1930

1943

Detroit

race riots

1940

1954

Brown v. Board of Education

1950

1957

Little Rock

Nine

1960

Ruby Bridges is first

student to desegregate

New Orleans

elementary school

1960

1963

George Wallace’s “stand

in the schoolhouse door”

at University of Alabama

1970

1964

Civil Rights

Act of 1964

1980

1965

Voting Rights

Act of 1965

1990

1968

Assassination of

Martin Luther King, Jr.

2000

2010

2016

ADAPTED BY THE GLOBE AND MAIL FROM “WHOSE HERITAGE?:

PUBLIC SYMBOLS OF THE CONFEDERACY,” BY THE SOUTHERN POVERTY

LAW CENTER.

Public institutions, monuments, and statues bearing Confederate names

Schools

Monuments on courthouse grounds

Other sites (including monuments)

1861

1865

Formation of

the Ku Klux Klan

1870

Recons-

truction

1880

1890

1896

Plessy v. Ferguson

1900

1909

NAACP founded

1910

1915

Klan resurgency

as “Invisible Empire”

WWI

1919

“Red Summer”

race riots

1920

1921

Tulsa

race riots

1930

Great

Depression

1943

Detroit race riots

1940

WWII

1960

Ruby Bridges is first

student to desegregate

New Orleans

elementary school

1954

Brown v. Board

of Education

1950

1957

Little Rock

Nine

1962

James Meredith becomes

first African-American

student to attend

University of Mississippi

1960

Civil RightS

movement

1963

George Wallace’s “stand in

the schoolhouse door” at

University of Alabama

1964

Civil Rights

Act of 1964

1965

Voting Rights

Act of 1965

1970

1968

Assassination of

Martin Luther King, Jr.

1980

1990

2000

2010

2016

ADAPTED BY THE GLOBE AND MAIL FROM “WHOSE HERITAGE?: PUBLIC SYMBOLS OF THE CONFEDERACY,”

BY THE SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER.

The story of how that came to be, despite the South's initial reluctance to build such memorials, reveals the resiliency of white supremacy in 20th century United States, said Dr. Foner, author of an acclaimed book on the postwar Reconstruction period.

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A recent SPLC study found that there was a huge surge in the construction of Confederate monuments between the 1890s and the 1920s – two generations after the end of the Civil War.

The timing was no coincidence: Around the turn of the 20th century, nostalgia for the Confederacy was sweeping the South as the war generation began to pass away and what is now known as the "Cult of the Lost Cause" gained currency.

This romantic image of gallant rebels fighting for states' rights coincided with the entrenchment of Jim Crow, a system of racial oppression that kept black southerners poor and disenfranchised through a combination of legal penalties and a regime of state-sanctioned mob violence. In 1915, what is known as the second Ku Klux Klan was founded near Atlanta; it had at least two million members by the mid-1920s.

The spate of monument-building in honour of men who fought to preserve slavery was meant to emphasize white domination in the South.

"These statues were a statement fundamentally about who had the power," Dr. Foner said. "[They] were a kind of in-your-face statement of that."

Workers remove a statue depicting two Confederate soldiers, one of whom holds the Confederate battle flag, from the campus of Dixie State College on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2012.

The monuments were also a way for the South to commemorate the trauma and humiliation of the war, however self-inflicted, Dr. Waugh said.

"That is how you commemorate a searing experience. You need to interpret and you need to heal. That was their way of healing," she said. "It was also a political gesture of defiance in their mind … They were defying what was the most powerful narrative at the time, of the Union's triumph."

In the same period, even the North was engaging in a growing commemoration of Confederate leaders as part of a movement toward national reconciliation that played down the role of slavery and emancipation in the war and venerated Lincoln and Lee as totems of unity. Monuments and plaques to one-time enemies of the Union went up in places as unlikely as New York and Washington. (New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for a pair of Confederate street names to be changed this week, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said he plans to introduce a bill to remove Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol.)

A Civil War statue is on display at Congress Park in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. In the decades after the Civil War ended in April 1865, statues depicting Union and Confederate soldiers were placed in countless American communities, from New England commons to the grounds outside Southern courthouses.

This spirit of reconciliation, exemplified by former president Woodrow Wilson's famous speech on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, came at the cost of near-total federal indifference to the plight of black southerners. "When Jim Crow was still enforced in the South, most Northerners were still fine with this," Dr. Waugh said.

Another raft of Confederate monuments went up during the last gasp of Jim Crow, joined by a newfound veneration for the Confederate battle flag, as the civil-rights movement blossomed in the 1950s and 60s – another attempt to assert white supremacy by glorifying and romanticizing the Confederate cause.

"These statues had a lot more to do with the time in which they were erected than with the Confederacy," Dr. Foner said.

But in the wake of the civil-rights movement, historical memory of the Civil War began to shift, coming to emphasize slavery's centrality to the conflict. Confederate leaders like Lee were defined increasingly by historians for their defence of slavery, rather than the defence of their homeland.

"It's in the last 30, 40 years when historians have en masse placed slavery at the centre of the Civil War story," Dr. Foner said. "Once you do that, Lee doesn't seem so heroic."

Gradually, advocates for racial justice began to challenge the prevalence of visible Confederate monuments. In 1993, the Southern Poverty Law Center succeeded in getting the Confederate battle flag taken down from the Alabama capitol, but similar efforts met with "little success," the group noted in a recent report.

The United States required a bloody shock to start reckoning seriously with the implications of honouring figures like Jackson and Lee on its boulevards and in its town squares. That shock came in June 2015, when a young white supremacist named Dylann Roof opened fire in a black, Charleston, S.C., church, killing nine African-Americans in an attempt to launch a "race war."

Instead, images of Mr. Roof brandishing the Confederate battle flag shortly before his rampage launched a period of Southern soul-searching. As the SPLC wrote soon after, "In what seemed like an instant, the South's 150-year reverence for the Confederacy was shaken."

South Carolina legislators swiftly voted to remove the flag from the grounds of the State House, and within months, governments across the South, from Montgomery, Ala., to Memphis, Tenn., to New Orleans, La., had taken steps to scrap the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy.

Since then, there has been a steady drumbeat of debate around these symbols in the South, against the backdrop of a wider cultural skirmish over the proper way to commemorate fraught historical figures across the English-speaking world. U.S. critics have often argued, however, that Confederate leaders are a special case; that whereas other sources of controversy may have mixed reputations – like Hector-Louis Langevin, a father of Confederation whose name was removed from a prominent federal office building in Ottawa this summer for his role in creating the residential school system – men like Lee and Confederate president Jefferson Davis have a legacy of unadulterated evil: the fight to preserve slavery.

Last week's violence in Charlottesville marked another turning point in this long battle. The ensuing days saw politicians across the country set in motion the removal of local Confederate monuments; the mayor of Baltimore ordered a series of statues to figures like Lee and Stonewall Jackson pulled down overnight on Wednesday. A poignant photograph showed two black workers demolishing the stone base of a Confederate soldier's monument in Gainesville, Fla., on Monday.

Perhaps most stark of all, the Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, said on Wednesday that in light of Charlottesville, he supported removing all the state's Confederate monuments and relocating them to more neutral venues, like museums. For the leader of a state that contained the Confederate capital in Richmond, to repudiate the public commemoration of the Confederacy was a watershed moment.

A backlash to the removal efforts is already under way – sometimes for reasons of preservation, but also on white-supremacist grounds. "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments," U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted this week.

On this issue, the public is with Mr. Trump. More than twice as many Americans think Confederate monuments are about Southern pride as think they're about racism, according to a survey by the Economist and YouGov this week. Forty-eight per cent disapproved of removing Lee's statue from the Charlottesville park compared with 30 per cent who approved.

Demonstrators who support keeping Confederate-era monuments protest before the Jefferson Davis statue was taken down in New Orleans, Thursday, May 11, 2017.

Beleaguered Trump strategist Stephen Bannon, who was fired by the President Friday, said he welcomed the statue fight in an interview with The New York Times this week. "Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can't get enough of it," he said.

Until recently, the monuments had largely dissolved into the background of public life in America. Many people are simply too accustomed to the sight of Lee and Jackson cast in bronze to find it offensive – even those who might be expected to. Only 47 per cent of black Americans think the monuments represent racism, according to the Economist/YouGov survey.

Dr. Bradley of Kennesaw State University said she didn't look askance at Confederate statues until becoming an academic. "It was always just part of the landscape."

A sabre-brandishing Lee may never just be part of the landscape again; the neo-Nazis carrying torches in his defence made sure of that. A century and a half after its racist rebellion was put down, the Confederacy is more stigmatized than ever.

That may result in tenacious efforts to keep some of its symbols intact. Karen Cox, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, notes that her home state has a law on the books that makes it virtually impossible for local governments to take down Confederate monuments. She adds that her writing against the statues has earned occasionally vicious responses – some of which "aren't worth repeating."

Meanwhile, a good-faith debate about what to do with monuments is likely to carry on for years. Dr. Waugh of UCLA suggests not tearing them down, but affixing plaques to Confederate statues that clarify the dark legacy of these figures.

"I believe that many of these monuments should not be removed, but should be interpreted, discussed, used as an educational tool," she said. "And how to do you do that? You put them in context."

For his part, Dr. Foner makes the case for building new monuments to the real heroes of the Civil War and its aftermath. "It's not a matter of taking down statues but putting up statues," he said. "Let's have a hundred black Reconstruction leaders around the South commemorated. Every town had one."

Whatever becomes of these artifacts, they are now tarnished in the eyes of many Americans. The era of complacent glorification of the Confederacy seems to be at an end – and with it, an era in which the fate of black lives in the country's greatest trial could be ignored or waved away.

"I think you are going to see this slow erosion of Confederate symbols," Dr. Foner said. "I don't think they're all going to disappear, but there seems to be a consensus emerging, despite all the Trump folks out there, that this isn't something that should be celebrated."

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