The more I’ve tried to write about this, the more it bothers me.
The usual balm of reading and data digging backfired – it only showed me just how awful the problem is. What seemed like one symbol was actually hundreds, out in public, for the whole nation to remember.
To remember the wrong thing.
What is leaving me stunned is not so much that old civil-war era monuments might have slipped through history to today. Completely confounding is how many confederate symbols were built 50 and 100 years AFTER the south LOST the war, and are still being built today.
Why does America have statues of, or schools named after, or flags carried by, the losing generals from our civil war? Commemorating them also presents their cause as worthy, and their cause was the racist message we are still trying to eradicate from our hearts and our country.
But now I’m adding up the years to wonder if history might repeat itself.
The Charlottesville statue is one of over 1500 symbols of the confederacy that still exist in public spaces. 1500! The timeline pictured above places all of them into historical context, as wave after wave of revisionist historians sought to cement (literally) the notion that one race is superior and another should, “know its place”. Created by the Southern Poverty Law Center along with the companion research1, it shows that confederate symbols have been created in response to times when the country was visibly pushing closer to equality.
Progress inching forward seems to trigger some to look back and remember past Lost Cause “heroes”: to remind “others” that heritage means something that is handed down from forefathers, that comes by way of birth, which does not belong to everyone. (“Lost Cause” refers to the “movement that describes the Confederate cause as a heroic one against great odds despite its defeat.”
During the civil war, Robert E. Lee led the confederate’s war to “preserve its slave labor”. The southern states coalesced around white heritage and used states’ rights language to insist on their own way. Lest there be any doubt what their way was, the confederate Vice President Stephens proclaimed in his Cornerstone Speech in 1861, “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.”
Lee and Stephens’ side lost when the civil war ended in 1865. But the battle was far from over.
Roughly 50 years after the civil war, the Robert E. Lee statue was commissioned in Charlottesville (1917). 2 Towering on his high horse, exuding power over all those walking daily in his shadow – both winners and losers of the civil war were reminded of Lee and all that he fought for. The statue was not a one-off: there was a sudden surge in monuments in an era when Jim Crow laws were proliferating, building momentum for white superiorists to send a distinct message.
Fast forward 50 more years to a nation boiling over in the civil rights movement. Once again there was a victory which the losers would not accept: Brown vs. Board of Education. This time a courtroom battle should have done away with decades of segregative practices, but some fought to hold on to the past. In 1956, Georgia responded with a flurry of laws designed to avoid desegregation 3, then redesigned its state flag to INCLUDE the confederate battle flag. In 1962 James Meredith became the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi, just as South Carolina BEGINS flying the confederate flag over the State House. 4
Here again a series of symbols go up, even as equality is inching forward.
Thirty-four more monuments or school names would honor the confederacy over the next 3 years. As society progressed toward equality, it was as if a certain crowd were saying, “Remember. Remember our heritage. And remind “the others” of their place.”
We are tempted to think of old confederate symbols – and racism itself – as a relic of a different time, like the last few boxes in the garage corner we haven’t yet purged. When in fact some people have been actively moving boxes in the whole time, raising old symbols up the flagpole and now, 150 years on, finding strength to move out of the corners and again into public spaces. To carry the analogy, African Americans and others are still weaving around the stacks of boxes, while too many white folks just close the garage door, saying, “What boxes? I don’t see any boxes.”
The civil rights movement was at its peak in 1965 when the infamous “Bloody Sunday” march from Selma was stopped on the bridge by Alabama state troopers. (The bridge is still named Edmund Pettus Bridge, after a KKK Grand Dragon) County sheriff Jim Clark issued an order for all white males to report and be deputized, and the resulting beatings were televised across the country, thankfully setting in motion the Selma Voting Rights Campaign. 5.
If the 50-year cycle were to continue, then our present day would be the time to commission a statue of sheriff Jim Clark to make sure “our heritage” is remembered.
The pattern seems to line up perfectly with the voices being unleashed today. Perhaps our most visible symbol in America is the presidency, seeking to normalize supporters of confederate monuments as, “some very fine people” and in a different speech, “They are trying to take away our history and our heritage.” 6
The question is, “Whose heritage”?
(You’d better add a “Y” to that “our” because the heritage you’re trying to preserve is yours.)
Statues in public places, schools named after confederate generals, and “old dixie” flags flying over courthouses have been used over the past century as a kind of middle finger to the federal government “stepping on” states’ rights to segregate and discriminate. The power of symbols is their ability to send deeper messages without spelling it out directly. But once a symbol has been used over time with racist overtones, it’s hard to play innocent with the flag in our hands.
There is a reason why Germans have banned all Nazi symbolism from public space. Yet Americans still display and raise symbols of the confederacy and implied racial superiority. 7
The oft-quoted view of history is that it is written by the victors. 8 However the monument timeline shows the Lost Causers of the American civil war clutching not only the historical pen, but the monument business as well, using their inscriptions to write injustice.
Now is the time make it right.
Move such memorials to a setting of museum-like learning with inscriptions that contextualize and declare, “never again”. We need to own the problem, recognize our forebears’ role, and work for change. We remember those who fought for justice, in some cases also our forebears. History shows us both kinds of people – it follows that both exist today. The question is, which will I be?
I’ll end with President Johnson’s speech to congress, a proper presidential response after the Bloody Sunday march, finally defending voting rights for blacks:
“Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
1 Skip all the other stuff and go directly to this report, which triggered many of the reactions written above. SPLC Whose Heritage
2 Shrady also was the sculptor for the colossal statue of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Lee’s nemesis, that stands in front of the U.S. Capitol. See LA Times confederate monuments
3 See this blow by blow account of the context surrounding Georgia’s flag redesign created in 2000 by the Georgia Senate Research Office, “this paper will focus on the flag as it has become associated, since the 1956 session, with preserving segregation, resisting the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and maintaining white supremacy in Georgia. “
4 (The same flag would finally be ordered down just 2 years ago after a white supremacist, photographed earlier with the flag, walked into a church and shot 9 black Christians in a prayer meeting)
Picture of Sheriff Jim Clark source