To some they represent racism, to others history.
It was a plan to take down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that brought white supremacist protesters to the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend. Clashes with counter-protesters resulted in the death of a 32-year-old woman, but the incident has also spurred on an acceleration of the removal of statues, monuments and other symbols of the Confederate States of America.
The Confederacy fought for independence from the United States over states’ rights to direct their own affairs, including the institution of slavery.
In the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe urged local officials to move Confederate-themed monuments into museums. The city of Baltimore removed Confederate-themed statues overnight on Tuesday. Birmingham, Alabama, covered up part of a monument, but a state law prevents the city from taking it down. In Durham, North Carolina, liberal demonstrators took the matter into their own hands and pulled down a statue of a Confederate soldier.
Even in places that were not part of the Confederacy, statues and monuments have been found and removed. In Brooklyn, crews on Wednesday took down a plaque noting a place where Robert E. Lee once planted a tree. Even north of the border, in Montreal, a department store removed a plaque commemorating a post-Civil War visit by Jefferson Davis, who had been president of the Confederate States of America.
Some memorials may be harder to remove, such as a large carving of Confederate generals on the side of Stone Mountain, a granite outcropping east of Atlanta. Stacey Abrams, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor, called for its removal, arguing that it “had no purpose other than celebration of racism, terror and division.”
President Donald J. Trump, who has come under fire for seeming to blame white nationalists and anti-racist protesters equally for last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, decried the surge in monument-removal. In a three-tweet post on Twitter Thursday, Trump stated: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish. Also, the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”
The New York Times estimates there are about 700 statues and monuments dedicated to Confederate figures and themes. The controversy pits those affected by the bitter memory of slavery and those wishing to see history and the heritage of the old South preserved.
Baltimore’s African-American mayor, Catherine E. Pugh, stated: “For me, the statues represented pain, and not only did I want to protect my city from any more of that pain, I also wanted to protect my city from any of the violence that was occurring around the nation.”
Jimmy Hill, commander of the Alabama division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, argued for preservation, and cautioned that removing the monuments could spark a backlash. He said he had seen social media posts that proposed toppling monuments to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to “even the score.”
“I don’t want to see any civil rights statues desecrated or toppled over or taken down,” he told the Times. “We don’t have to glorify every single event that happened, but if they’re already here, people need to remember what happened in our history.”
What’s being lost in the debate, according to University of Dallas history professor Thomas Jodziewicz, are the ambiguities that history is always all about. “There are some figures, like Robert E. Lee, who really was torn about defending his country, which he considered to be Virginia, and commanding the U.S. Army, which he could have done, in the Civil War,” Jodziewicz said in an interview Wednesday. “You can find plenty in Jefferson that really is white supremacist. Lincoln was all in favor of sending freed slaves to places like Liberia and the Caribbean. He didn’t believe there could be a biracial community here.”
Jodziewicz said he understands “the angst” the monuments can cause, but rather than “whitewashing history,” it would be beneficial to keep them and provide historical context, explaining that the monuments are a product of a troubled past.
That, apparently, is what Richmond, Virginia, Mayor Levar M. Stoney argued for in regards to the enormous Confederate statues on the city’s Monument Avenue. But on Wednesday, he reversed his position, saying he believes they should be removed.
Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy.
Many of the monuments were erected in the late 19th century, as part of a moment of consolidation for the South, said Christopher Shannon, assistant professor of history at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. The period of reconstruction in the South ended in 1877, with the withdrawal of federal troops, and there was a “Let bygones be bygones, let the South be the South” attitude, he said.
“It takes the South a couple of decades to really get on its own, if you will, and part of that is a hardening of race relations, with Jim Crow laws, that get constitutional support with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “Part of it also is memorializing the Confederacy, as the Great Lost Cause, something, certainly, for white southerners to rally around. And those monuments are an important part of that political moment in the south, a political moment which lasted for a good 60 or 70 years, until the Civil Rights movement.”
Shannon said the symbols of the Confederacy had “many many different meanings” and that he is unwilling to reduce all of them simply to racism. People regarded Robert E. Lee as a noble man who saw himself as someone defending his homeland—which was primarily not the Confederacy but Virginia. “I think that aspect of it has to be respected, and by extension you could say that about other Confederate leaders and soldiers. As the war developed they were often defending their land against what they saw as kind of a foreign army, a foreign aggressor. So I understand why certain people are attracted by the Confederate symbols.”
But those symbols seem to have taken on new meanings in recent decades, he cautioned, and those meanings appeal to many beyond the confines of the old Confederacy. “I imagine a lot of people who were in Charlottesville [for the dueling demonstrations] were not from the South,” he said.
Also on hand in Charlottesville was former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke. Shannon pointed out that when the KKK was reborn in the 1920s, “the big center for them was in Indiana, not in the South. The KKK, which was always about domination of blacks, but in its original manifestation was about being against northerners and the northern occupation. By the 1920s, it becomes more of a national organization, and it’s more about white supremacy that is distinct from the legacy of the confederacy.”
Shannon suspects that Confederate memorials will continue to be at risk, not so much through violent toppling but by the same kind of pressure that led to the reversal of newly-enacted laws such as Indiana’s religious freedom bill and North Carolina’s transgender bathroom bill. In the former case, Walmart failed to support a bill that may have been popular in Gov. Mike Pence’s Indiana, but was the subject of scorn in many other places because it appeared discriminatory against gays. Walmart knew it would be bad for business on a global scale.
In the North Carolina case, the NCAA threatened to boycott the state with any major basketball tournaments. The law was repealed earlier this year.