In 2015, a young white supremacist named Dylann Roof walked into a prayer meeting in the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina and murdered nine people, all African American, in cold blood. Amid the mourning and soul-searching after that terrible event, there was one perhaps surprising outcome: an intensified conversation about the meaning of the public symbolism and commemoration of the American Civil War (1860-65).
Shortly after the shooting, images of Roof circulated showing him waving a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other. This flag is a common sight in the American South: it has been displayed on public buildings, and individuals wear it on their clothes, or decorate their cars with it. Many white Southerners claim this flag as an emblem of identity and regional pride. Roof, however, laid bare the ugly connotations of this symbol, which has also been used as an icon of white supremacy and terror in the years following the Civil War and during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.
Inadvertently, Roof’s violence spurred a movement to interrogate and challenge public symbols of white supremacy throughout the U.S. Shortly after the murders, South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from the grounds of its state house. Other states and cities followed suit, removing not only flags, but also statues and other memorials to the Confederacy.
This is the context for the violent “Unite the Right” rally this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, where neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, militias, and other groups associated with the “alt-right” converged to protest the removal of an equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
The fascists and white supremacists who rallied around the monument in Charlottesville venerate it as a symbol of white racial identity and power. Those advocating for the statue’s removal from a place of public prominence, on the other hand, see it as a reminder of a brutal history of slavery, segregation, and racial oppression. Between these views, some argue that these monuments should be left in place in deference to their historical significance. However, these historic preservationists often fail to fully understand the history of the artifacts they wish to preserve.
There are many hundreds of such statues all over the US, especially in the southern states that were once part of the Confederacy. There are hundreds more streets, parks, schools, and even cities named for Confederate heroes like Lee, General Stonewall Jackson, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Indeed, these public commemorations of the Confederacy are so numerous, that the historian James McPherson has quipped, “If the Confederacy had raised proportionately as many soldiers as the postwar South raised monuments, it may not have succumbed to [the North’s] ‘overwhelming numbers’.”
Why so many monuments to a failed rebellion? The answer is that these memorials were part of a project by white southerners to revise the historical meaning of the Civil War and to shore up the legitimacy of white rule in the segregated South.
Most of the public Civil War monuments in the US were built between 1880 and 1920, decades after the war was over. The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville was not erected until 1924. In this period, the revolt of the southern states from the US was transformed into an honorable and romantic “Lost Cause” to protect a distinctive and noble Southern way of life. This historical revision downplayed the centrality of slavery as a cause of the southern secession, and emphasized instead northern “aggression” against a genteel southern plantation lifestyle. It elevated figures like Lee into unambiguous heroes—Christian gentlemen, who cared less for their property rights in human beings, and more for defending their homeland. This was all historical nonsense. The maintenance of chattel slavery was a central factor in the Southern secession from the US, and Lee was a ruthless slave owner who turned a blind eye to vicious acts of racial oppression before, during, and after the war.
This period of the rehabilitation of the Confederacy, when most of these monuments were built, also coincided with the establishment of “Jim Crow,” the southern system of racial segregation, ruthlessly and violently enforced by lynch mobs and terrorist groups like the secretive white supremacist Ku Klux Klan. For many African Americans, the Civil War monuments, like the Confederate battle flag, are reminders of this terrible history. Worse, in the hands of groups like the Klan, they remain emblems of terror.
It is possible to see the erection of Confederate memorials as coinciding with moments when African Americans most effectively challenged white supremacy. The Confederate flag only began flying over the South Carolina State House in 1962, at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Similarly, in 1959, as the battle to integrate schools was heating up, a new high school in Jacksonville, Florida was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate war criminal, widely remembered as an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Pushing for this name, over the protests of students, was the Daughters of the Confederacy, the women’s group also responsible for the erection of many of the Confederate monuments throughout the South. The school, which was integrated in 1971, today serves mostly African American students. It was finally renamed in 2014.
All over the US, these historical relics of reconstruction and white supremacy are being removed, sometimes to violent protest, sometimes uneventfully. In my own city of Gainesville, Florida, social justice groups have worked for years to have a Confederate memorial removed from a prominent street corner. Finally, in the wake of events in Charlottesville, the Daughters of the Confederacy, which erected the statue in 1904, paid to have it quietly removed and placed in a private cemetery.
But the fight over the symbolism of the Confederacy and white supremacy is hardly over. Several states – all in the South – have passed laws making it illegal to remove monuments or even to rename schools and streets. Meanwhile, President Trump, who has struggled to denounce the white supremacists in Charlottesville, has weighed in on the removal of Confederate monuments, tweeting, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” Let’s just say he doesn’t know his history.