[based on research by Southern Poverty Law Center]
This was originally published a few years ago but recent events – repeated events – are causing me to dig in again, and I know many of you are too. When I take the short-view of Race in America – this week, this year, this decade – I respond with words like, “Shocked”, “Surprised”, and “Where did this come from?”. With those responses, I no longer need to tell you my skin is white. You already know.
Because none of this is a surprise to People of Color, as I’m hearing time and again. My surprise doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening, it means I wasn’t listening. The re-post below (with some editing) written after a 2017 Unite the Right rally at a confederate memorial in Charlottesville, shows but a few more strands that look different when seen as part of the whole. At least, I went into it thinking it was only a few strands…
I grew up in the south, amidst Confederate flags, schools named after Robert E. Lee, and statues honoring Southern Civil War soldiers. I didn’t think twice about the symbolism when I, as a young white boy, meticulously glued together a plastic model of the red Dukes of Hazzard car, named “The General Lee,” with the Confederate flag on the roof.
Years later, when a 2017 “Unite the Right” rally at a Confederate memorial in Charlottesville saw protesters converge around a huge statue of Lee in the center of town, it didn’t sit right with me. I began to wonder why such monuments still existed. I dug in to find out if such commemorations were a one-off, a statue or monument erected here and there, depending upon the whim of a locality. The answer: not even close.
As I did my research, I came across this stunning graphic from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) tracking the dedication of Confederate names and monuments, year by year. These monuments began to proliferate almost immediately after the Civil War, and the multiplication of these statues has continued ever since, spiking significantly during times of perceived equality gains for Black Americans.
Once I began seeing this, I could no longer listen to people talk about “our heritage, our beautiful heritage” in the same way. Our American tapestry is indeed beautiful, but we can become a more perfect union only when we sort out which parts of the tapestry are sacred, and which parts are scars.
Today it is Mississippi’s state flag or Stonewall Jackson’s statue that stirs debate. Three years ago, it was Charlottesville, where a towering monument cast shadows on all walking below, reminding them of a part of America’s heritage. And then — there was mayhem. Protests and counter-protests. Candles and cars. All converging on a single symbol.
But what seemed like a single symbol raised in Charlottesville was repeated by the hundreds across the country for the whole nation to remember. To remember the wrong thing.
Why does America have statues and schools and flags that memorialize the losing generals from our Civil War? Commemorating these leaders presents their cause as worthy, but their cause was the racist message we are still trying to eradicate from our hearts and our country.
And now I’m adding up the years of memories to wonder if history might repeat itself.
50, 100, 150 . . .
What confounds me is not so much that old Civil-War era monuments might have slipped through history to today. What leaves me stunned is the number of Confederate symbols that were built fifty and one hundred years after the South lost the war, and that are still being built today.
The Charlottesville statue is one of over 1,700 symbols of the Confederacy that still exist in public spaces. The SPLC timeline places their creation dates into historical context, as wave after wave of revisionist historians sought to cement the notion that one race controls the narrative, and all others must listen.
Progress inches forward and triggers some to look back and remember so-called “Lost Cause” heroes — to remind others that heritage means something that is handed down from forefathers, that comes by way of birth, and that does not belong to everyone.
Robert E. Lee led the Confederacy’s rebellion to preserve its enslaved labor. The southern states coalesced to defend their white heritage and used states’ rights language to insist on their own way. Though some even today will claim the war was to protect states’ rights, in 1861 Confederate Vice President Stephens proclaimed in his 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.”
Lee and Stephens’ side lost when the Civil War ended in 1865.
But the battle was far from over.
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In 1917, roughly fifty years after the Civil War, the Robert E. Lee statue was commissioned and then erected in Charlottesville. 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 an isolated memorial: there was a sudden surge in monuments in an era when the Black middle class was rising and where African-American educator and author Booker T. Washington was finding national prominence, acting as advisor to several U.S. presidents. The push for monuments was not enough for some, who also expanded Jim Crow laws to reverse many of the gains made in the fifty years since Emancipation.
Equality gains ground; white supremacy pushes back.
Fast forward fifty more years to a nation boiling over during the Civil Rights Movement. Once again there was a victory that the losers would not accept: Brown vs. Board of Education, handed down in 1954 from the Supreme Court.
The courtroom decision should have dismantled decades of segregationist practices, but some fought to hold on to the past by restoring the flag of a lost war, turning it into a symbol of defiance. By 1956, Georgia responded to the court’s decision with a flurry of laws designed to avoid desegregation, and redesigned its state flag to include the Confederate battle symbol. South Carolina began flying the Confederate flag over their State House in 1962 — nearly a hundred years after the Civil War.
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. 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. (Think about that invitation list: “all white males” That’s all he needed to know about you.)
During the fourteen years usually counted as the Civil Rights Movement, eighty-two more Confederate commemorations were dedicated.
I had been tempted to think of old Confederate symbols — and racism itself — as relics of a different time, like the last few boxes in our nation’s garage that we hadn’t yet purged. Yet one hundred and fifty years on, racist symbols are still being raised up the flagpole and into public spaces.
If the fifty-year cycle were to continue, then our present day would be the time to for things to fire up again, or perhaps commission a statue of sheriff Jim Clark to make sure “our heritage” is remembered.
And indeed, the fifty-year pattern seems to line up perfectly with the voices that are unleashed today. As some parts of society progress toward equality, we once are once again hearing the refrain, “Remember our heritage.”
The question is, “Whose heritage?”
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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 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. A flag of a branch of the rebel army comes to represent “Southern Heritage,” a defiant reaction to a federal decision. 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 banned all Nazi symbolism from public spaces. And as I think through the nuance of conversations with friends in modern-day Germany, their national confidence shines not because of historical atrocities, but because of the universal condemnation of them. Through museums and classrooms — and the national banning of specific symbols — they are committed to accepting (not denying) the sins of history, and educating the next generation on the violence that becomes possible when the middle-ground majority remain silent.
Yet Americans still display and raise symbols of the Confederacy with its implied racial superiority.
The oft-quoted view of history is that it is written by the victors. But the SPLC’s 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 museums with inscriptions that contextualize and declare “never again.” We need to own the problem, recognize our forebears’ role in supporting injustice, and work for change. We can also remember those who fought for justice, in some cases also our forebears.
History shows us both kinds of people living in the past — it follows that both exist today. The question is, which will I be?
See also The Already and the Not Yet of MLK
More on Georgia’s Flag: 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. “
♦♦♦ Interested in joining a discussion group on the book, “Me and White Supremacy”? It is hosted by an outstanding group in Santa Barbara called The Way Collective and starts June 28 or July 12, 2020. – See more .