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On Confederate Monuments and Public Memorials, Part 1

On July 7th, 2020, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests, a statue of Frederick Douglass, arguably the most famous Black abolitionist, was pulled from its pedestal in Rochester, New York. Rochester is the city where Douglass published his abolitionist paper, The North Star, where he is buried and where, on July 5, 1852 he delivered his famed “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech. In the address, the text of which was widely shared on social media over the 4th of July holiday weekend, he said the United States could not genuinely celebrate its commitment to liberty and independence while enslaving and oppressing Black people. Douglass’s statue was toppled, dragged and dumped 50 feet away in a river gorge, an act which should dispel any notion that Confederate Monuments are anything but declarations of white supremacy.

Despite cries that these “Monuments” simply honor “heritage”, their history tells a very different story. Make no mistake, despite revisionist history, taught for generations in Southern Schools, the Civil War was fought over one thing: slavery. South Carolina, the first state to succeed, defended their right to do so, citing the failure of the Northern States to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act, i.e., not extraditing any enslaved person who escaped bondage to their state of bondage or origin, and the election of a new President (Abraham Lincoln) whose “opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” While Lincoln’s position was nowhere near so clear, what was crystal clear is that the Confederacy wanted to maintain their engine of economic success, slavery, and extend it into the western territories. The Confederate States were established explicitly to preserve and expand the institution of slavery, a position stated in unambiguous terms by Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy's vice president, in 1861.

And so was fought the bloodiest war on American soil.

After the Confederacy surrendered, its President, Jefferson Davis, and others were arrested for treason. But following the death of Lincoln, the new Confederate sympathizer president, Andrew Johnson, issued a presidential "pardon and amnesty" for the offense of treason to "every person who directly or indirectly participated in the late insurrection or rebellion", and restored all property except slaves.

Reconstruction followed, a time during which Federal attempts were made to redress the inequities of slavery and its political, social, and economic legacy. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, which extended voting rights to Blacks, was the first significant legislation in American history to become law over a president’s veto. Shortly after, the 14th amendment was adopted, granting birthright citizenship and forbidding states to deprive any citizen of the “equal protection” of the laws. General Wm. Sherman set aside a large swath of costal South Carolina and Georgia land for exclusive settlement of black families, and authorized the newly formed Freedman’s Bureau, an agency Congress created in 1865 to oversee the transition from slavery to freedom, to rent or sell the property to the formerly enslaved, the origin of the “40 acres" portion of the "40 acres and a mule” promise.

A period of rapid social and economic transformation of the South ensued. For the first time, African Americans could solidify family ties, create churches and demand economic independence. One testament to progress: African American members of the 41st and 42nd Congresses.

However, much like the election of Barak Obama generations later, racial progress spurred a backlash. President Johnson ordered the land returned to former owners, leaving the newly freedmen free only to work as sharecroppers or laborers. And the KKK formed, the first US homegrown hate group and terrorist organization, with the express purpose of preventing Blacks from enjoying basic civil rights, their tools: lynchings, tar-and-featherings and rapes. Rapid rollbacks in Black economic and political gains followed. By the 1890’s Black Americans had been barred from electoral politics. By the early 1900’s, Jim Crow laws disenfranchising Black Americans and enshrining segregation ensured the domination of southern whites.

Over 1500 monuments to the Confederacy still stand in the United States. Most, outside of cemeteries, were erected in public squares and courthouses after1900. They were installed not to commemorate fallen soldiers (a dubious choice at best, since all were traitors to the US government) but as symbols of white supremacy. The biggest spike in Confederate memorials came during the early 1900s as part of an organized strategy to reshape Civil War history, largely spearheaded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization of women of the first families of the south.

“The UDC was very focused on the future,” said Karen Cox, a historian, University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor and author of numerous articles and books on Southern history and culture, including “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.” “Their goal, in all the work that they did, was to prepare future generations of white Southerners to respect and defend the principles of the Confederacy.”

They UDC didn’t limit their campaign to raising monuments, either. They controlled education, rejecting any school textbook which identified slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. One text in use through the 1970's: "The slaves were comfortably clothed, given an abundance of wholesome food, and kindly treated. ... These slaves were brought into the colonies fresh from a savage life in Africa and in two or three generations were changed into respectable men and women." Another sample from Arkansas below, also used through the 1970's, describes the formation of the KKK as a reaction to organization of African Americans in 1863 Union Leagues . (The school that used that text in 1927 did not teach the pledge of allegiance. Students were taught Lee's farewell address to his troops, and that the rebellion and surrender we know as the Civil war was The War of Northern Aggression.)

The UDC gave speeches that distorted the cruelty of American slavery and defended slave owners. "Was the negro happy under the institution of slavery? They were the happiest set of people on the face of the globe — free from care or thought of food, clothes, home, or religious privileges." In other words, UDC was a group of women lobbying hard for preserving white supremacy through lies.

1n 1914, The Daughters advocated for a monumental memorial to keep their version of the Civil War alive and support the making of more Confederate memorials; by 1923, carving of the enormous Stone Mountain Park granite carving depicting Davis, Lee and Stonewall Jackson began.

That same year, after the “Red Summer” a series of race wars between 1917 (after the release of Birth of A Nation, Woodrow Wilson’s firing all black civil service workers, including T. Roosevelt and Wm Taft appointees and, requiring, for the first time photographs on all applications) and 1923, when white mobs (with local and federal government assistance) violently destroyed black towns and confiscated all wealth and possession from the black community (including Tulsa, “Black Wall Street”), The UDC nearly succeeded in erecting a monument to “faithful colored mammies.” Legislation was approved by the United States Senate, but did not make it past the House.

The UDC efforts propagated the Cult of the Lost Cause (of which, sadly, Woodrow Wilson, President from 1913 to 1921 was a leading proponent). The term “Lost Cause” emerged at the end of the Civil War, the title of popular book that chronicled the Confederacy’s demise, and quickly came into common use to reference the defeat of the Antebellum “southern way of life” and plantation slavery. In the Lost Cause, Southerners created an image of the war as a great heroic epic.

A glance at the (upper) graph below shows resurgent monument construction at times of increased racial tension: Jim Crow laws (which, while disenfranchising blacks, lead to economically vibrant, thriving black communities), competition in job and housing markets post WW I demobilization of troops and the Civil Rights Movement. (for better resolution). Very simplified graph of the same data is appended immediately below.

So, should Confederate Monuments come down? Absolutely. Will it enrage white supremacists? Yes. Will it enrage some who would deny they are racist? Probably so. But it won’t enrage Blacks. It won’t enrage anti-racists. And it won’t enrage scholars of history. Should some be put in museums in context? Possibly.

But consider this, if you want to talk about history and heritage.

How many monuments are there to lynching? That’s a part of our history that claimed 4000-5000 black lives. Lynching was an extrajudicial means of preserving the system of white supremacy for which the Confederacy fought. Journalist Ida B. Wells overturned the common idea that lynchings were a result of black sexual crimes. In 1892, three of her friends were lynched in Memphis, TN. Their crime? Their grocery story competed successfully against a white owned store. Her investigations revealed lynchings to be efforts to suppress blacks who competed economically with whites, especially if they were successful. Similar to the motivation behind the "race riots".

Yet lynching postcards remain, widely circulated for 50 years, collected and published in 2000, by James Allen in his book Without Sanctuary. In that book, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Leon Litwack wrote:

"The men and women who tortured, dismembered, and murdered in this fashion understood perfectly well what they were doing and thought of themselves as perfectly normal human beings. This was … the triumph of a belief system that defined one people as less human than another…this was the highest idealism in the service of their race. One has only to view the self-satisfied expressions on their faces as they posed beneath black people hanging from a rope or next to the charred remains of a Negro who had been burned to death. What is most disturbing about these scenes is the discovery that the perpetrators of the crimes were ordinary people, not so different from ourselves – merchants, farmers, laborers, machine operators, teachers, doctors, lawyers, policemen, students; they were family men and women, good churchgoing folk who came to believe that keeping black people in their place was nothing less than pest control, a way of combating an epidemic or virus that if not checked would be detrimental to the health and security of the community."

Below: Top, details from 1935, Fort Lauderdale, Lynching of Rubin Stacy courtesy NAACP, and below, detail, uncredited.

Who can deny the connection to reactions to court ordered integration of Little Rock High School, Little Rock, AK, 1957?

In 2018, one man of vision and courage, Bryan Stevenson opened The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” This memorial “was conceived with the hope of creating a sober, meaningful site where people can gather and reflect on America’s history of racial inequality.”

You can’t erase history? No, we can’t. But we can honor the truth of history. And the truth is the Confederate States fought for an unjust cause and lost the war. They fought for the right to enslave Black Americans. Every dead confederate soldier is a dead white supremacist, a loser and a dead traitor to the United States.

Bryan Stevenson’s project brings context and truth to the struggle for racial justice in America in a way no Confederate bronze statue moved to a museum with a curator’s explanation ever could.

We have some reckoning to do. Consider our panoply of National Monuments, from Mount Rushmore to the proposed Patience on a Monument cartoon at the top of this piece. From our monuments to statues of heroes, people whose likenesses in body or bust we literally put on pedestals, we belatedly reckon with their complex failures (Margaret Sanger, Christopher Columbus, John Muir). Perhaps it is time to reconsider our notions of Heroes and Monuments, which, by their nature, are retro, rooted in the past and instead, look to the future we’d like to see, a future vision for the country we wish to celebrate.

It is way past time to shine a light on the truth, to retire those ill-conceived, ill intended “memorials” and create a new paradigm for honoring and embracing the values of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which we stand. One Union. Under God. Indivisible. With Truth and Justice for All.

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