Race and racism, while uneasy issues to swallow, are both significant matters dominating the political climate of the United States today and that needs addressing by both policymakers and the general public alike. Our country, despite being past slavery and segregation, is still facing and managing the problematic dilemma of racism, as the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia demonstrate. A few years ago, confederate flags were hot topics in the news. Now, the removal of confederate statues is hotly debated. Regarding the question of whether Confederate statues are symbols of hate or heritage, it boils down to this: the majority, if not all, of these monuments, statues, and memorials need to come down, renamed, or moved elsewhere in one way or another because of what they truly represent.
On Aug. 13 in Charlottesville, groups of white nationalists and counter protesters roughly two weeks ago, clashed with one another over a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s potential removal, arousing fierce controversy throughout the U.S. The point of contention in terms of these statues comes to this: on one hand, there are groups of individuals proclaiming since the past is unchangeable, we, as a society, should keep and preserve everything reminding us of that past, whether for better or worse. For these individuals, it’s better for us to have these reminders, no matter how painful, so that we can never repeat the mistakes of our ancestors.
On the other hand, some argue that if that artifact embodies a shameful past, one that reminds us of our hatred, bigotry, or, in this case, racism, then we should re-examine the artifact and question whether or not it adequately, effectively and ethically represents the moral fabric of our own times. To them, it is better to use history as an example; a means of transmitting or relaying to outsiders what our nation, culture and people are about and represent.
Tensions over Confederate memorials have reignited after the death of Heather Heyer, a counter-protester, when a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd of demonstrators. Heyer was protesting white supremacists who took to the streets of Charlottesville.
Inspired by the events in Charlottesville, dozens of cities across the United States, such as Baltimore, New Orleans and Annapolis, have also either been considering or already took down some of their confederate monuments. Two days following Charlottesville, for example, a group of Durham, North Carolina, activists, tired of government inaction in removing a statue of a Confederate soldier placed in front of the old Durham County Courthouse, situated there for close to a century.
What do the numbers say of the actual number of these memorials comprising the South?
Karen L. Cox, opinion contributor for The New York Times and professor of history at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, reveals how “according to one 2016 estimate, U.S. public spaces are home to over 1500 Confederate symbols – not only statues, but also highways, schools, and parks.” Needless to say, the American South has plenty of them. There is no shortage of Confederate monuments, at least in this region of the United States.
It’s also important to know that the United States isn’t alone in reexamining their history; countries such as in Ukraine, South Africa, and Germany are all following similar patterns in relation to the United States in regards to removing monuments they deem as offensive, dangerous, or downright humiliating.
“Ukraine’s Institute of National Remembrance says it has removed every one of the 1,320 statues of Lenin in the country, The Times of London reports, and destroyed another 1,069 Soviet-era monuments,” reports NPR’s Laurel Wamsley. The newspaper continues to explain how “the removal of the statues is part of a ban on Soviet-era symbols that was signed into law by President Poroshenko in May 2015…as well as the removal of statues and monuments, the law orders the renaming of thousands of streets, squares, towns and cities. However, the law cannot be enforced in those parts of eastern Ukraine under the control of Kremlin-backed rebels.” Ukraine stands as only one example besides the U.S. that is in the making of removing their controversial monuments.
Now let’s get down brass tacks and onto the heart of this editorial: as conscientious, mindful, and informed American citizens, how can we reasonably approach and decide on what’s best regarding the dispute surrounding Confederate memorials and statues? What are our obligations and how should we perceive these monuments? Are they symbols of heritage or hate? How should we vote accordingly? To begin, let’s start with some basic facts.
First, it’s important to realize that most of these Confederate monuments weren’t constructed during the Civil War, but between 50 to 100 years following it when Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan began rearing their ugly heads to disenfranchise, intimidate, and segregate African-Americans in any way or form possible. The primary reason for this delay in construction also has to do with the impoverished South’s inability obtaining the necessary funds to commission these memorials.
The era of Jim Crow can be traced back to roughly the 1890s, representing a systematic and organized method enforcing a racial apartheid, keeping blacks and whites segregated in places such as schools, parks and libraries. This period, lasting approximately until the 1920s, also witnessed a surge in racial violence and turbulence.“The heyday of monument building, between 1890 and 1920, was also a time of extreme racial violence, as Southern whites pushed back what little progress had been made by African-Americans in the decades after the Civil War,” argues Cox. In sum, the Jim Crow era witnessed the most construction of monuments and memorials in commemoration to a Confederate past, dedicating mostly it’s racist ideologies.
Ida B. Wells, famous for her journalism and anti-lynching causes, recorded 186 lynchings of black individuals in 1893 alone, mostly comprising men, but also including women and children also, according to Cox’s editorial.
“Times without number, since invested with citizenship, the [African] race has been indicted for ignorance, immorality and general worthlessness declared guilty and executed by its self constituted judges,” wrote Wells in an 1893 speech.
Following this first wave of monument building, lasting roughly between 1900 through the 1920s, a second wave emerged again during the 1950s and 60s as a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. “Once again, they rallied under the banner of the Confederate battle flag,” continues Cox.
Therefore, most of these monuments, statues, and memorials cannot be considered direct artifacts of the Civil War era, but instead only for early and mid twentieth-century America, more specifically the Southern United States during Jim Crow segregation. In other words, these objects reflect more about Jim Crow South and the Civil Rights era rather than the Civil War itself. Since nearly all were constructed proceeding well after the Civil War, these monuments do not truly reflect or capture the essence of this deep, troubling, complex, and frighteningly bloody occurrence. The problem isn’t that these monuments, statues, or memorials aren’t history inasmuch as they are misrepresented, misinterpreted, and misconceived as something they are not.
They are memorialized and glorified as a lost past, one that tends to ignore genuine, factual, and authentic history in favor for one that is romanticized and untrue. Facts around these statues are tossed aside for a false conviction in the past. It’s not the monuments but the interpretations surrounding the monuments that have become ahistorical.
Secondly, since most of these memorials are not primary artifacts of the Civil War, but of the twentieth-century, what is the real meaning behind them? What do they, for the most part, reflect and represent? What is the history behind these statues?
Cox answers this question by arguing how statues “were part of a campaign to paint the Southern cause in the Civil War as just and slavery as a benevolent institution, and their installation came against a backdrop of Jim Crow violence and oppression of African-Americans.”
History demonstrates how these Confederate monuments, at least a great bulk of them, are symbols of hate, bigotry, racism, and white supremacy. It’s not so much the statues themselves, in other words, but the people behind them that, unfortunately, makes it this way.
“As the Charlottesville incident shows, Confederate statues can become a rallying point for violent groups, including white supremacists and the KKK, and the mayor doesn’t want to provide a ready-made setting for a reply in Birmingham,” David A. Graham wrote in The Atlantic.
Cox expresses how the Charlottesville march, “with its hundreds of neo-Nazis and white nationalists coming out to defend the memory of General Lee, puts the lie to the notion that, as the apologists say, these monuments are about ‘heritage, not hate’.”
The actions of certain organizations within the United States should also challenge notions that these statue’s meaning are merely about heritage and not hate. One of the leading groups responsible for raising the majority of these memorials was the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), considered one of the most influential white women’s organizations in the South during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“The 1890s, when the UDC was founded and monument building began in earnest, was a decade of virulent racism across the South…the UDC…were intent on honoring the Confederate generation and establishing a revisionist history of what they called the War Between the States,” according the Cox.
This “Lost Cause” mythology, in the eyes of the UDC and other like-minded organizations, meant a number of things. First, the South chose war defending their rights, honor, and white heritage. Second, slavery is an honorable and benevolent institution, designed to better the African through Christianity. And lastly, the Confederates had a just and noble cause. Those who fought, to them, should also be regarded as heroes who fought for southern pride and white culture.
“The Daughters regarded the Ku Klux Klan, which had been founded to resist Reconstruction, as a heroic organization, necessary to return order to the South,” expresses Cox. This organization led a cruel, unjust, and coordinated campaign of mob violence against African-Americans.
Finally, not only were these statues and memorials erected decades after the Civil War era and mostly by white nationalists or supremacists, their choice of location for placement is also disconcerting. During the era of Jim Crow, when the first wave of monument building really began igniting earnestly, statues could essentially be commissioned or placed anywhere. Although some became situated in parks or cemeteries, Cox reveals how “far more were erected on the grounds of local and state courthouses.”
“These monuments, then, not only represented reverence for soldiers who fought in a war to defend slavery,” writes Cox, “they also made a very pointed statement about the rule of white supremacy: All who enter the courthouse are subject to the laws of white men.”
Before proposing any solutions, one question may be on the reader’s mind that needs addressing: why couldn’t protesters, specifically those responsible for tearing down these monuments, set their eyes and instead refer to legal action in removing these statues? Why couldn’t the statues be torn down sooner? The answer is quite simple and it has to do with preemption laws.
In states such as North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi, preemptive laws are set in place to keep city governments from removing them. Therefore, State legislatures are the only ones with any kind of authority or power when it comes to deciding on what to do regarding these monuments, meaning local communities have little to no say regarding this process.
“Those in favor of tearing down the monument demanded to know why the county hadn’t done so earlier. Those who were against it demanded to know why the protesters hadn’t pursued legal avenues first. The answer to both questions was the same: There was no ready legal avenue,” writes Graham.
A law passed by the Alabama Legislature specifically prohibits the “relocation, removal, alteration, renaming, or other disturbance of any architecturally significant building, memorial building, memorial street, or monument located on public property which has been in place for 40 or more years.”
What I propose is more local autonomy, control, and sovereignty regarding the decision making process behind these monuments, alongside taking each statue on a case-by-case locally basis as a possible solution. I recommend a four-step method in determining if a statue is on reasonable grounds for removal or not. Both individuals and communities can use this process for each monument that comes into question and decide appropriately. It may not be perfect, but it’s a start at least.
First, one has to assess whether or not the statue is depicting blatant pro-slavery or racist sentiments or if it is simply portraying specifically Confederate history (All Confederate monuments are inherently, but not always, outright apparently racist). Let’s take the example of Silent Sam, a memorial dedicated to confederate soldiers on the campus of the University of North Carolina.
According to David Graham, “Silent Sam” has been a huge part of the history of UNC. As the historian Kevin Kruse, a Carolina alumnus, notes, at its dedication in 1913, the confederate veteran Julian Carr, another UNC graduate which became a major confederate veterans group leader, boasted about the time he ‘horse-whipped a Negro wench’ to defend ‘the Anglo-Saxon race.’”
Second, what went on behind the monument itself? Who built it and for what purpose? In the case with Silent Sam, individuals used the memorial as a platform to spread a message of racial conflict, violence, and white superiority. Many other examples like Silent Sam were brought up within this editorial as well.
Therefore if a monument passes the first step, but fails the second, the statue in question meets grounds for removal and will not move on to the third.
If the statue succeeds the first and second phases, citizens of a local populace can now determine if it passes the third: what does the location of the monument speak about it? To me, none of these statues belong or have any place near or in front of any courthouse, state legislature, or any other location where law is upheld or justice commences. Any other public places, such as parks, public schools, and highways, probably should not recognize or memorialize them either. The most suitable or ideal areas for these monuments are perhaps cemeteries, museums, or other historical locations, specifically designed to encapsulate and preserve history. Private may be preferable to public locations, but under no circumstances should they be allowed anywhere inside or outside a court of law.
The first three are probably the easiest to determine, however, the fourth step may be more problematic and trickier determining: how will this statue affect the safety of the public? Each county within the United States has its own unique history, geography, climate, culture demographics, and other distinct characteristics. A statue perceived as offensive in one area may not be viewed so in another. These local factors must be taken into account when determining the moral significance or message a monument is attempting to convey.
As a conservative libertarian from North Carolina, who is also studying history, these monuments, at least the majority of them, should be taken down or renamed. Some final points before concluding that I feel needs mentioning: until a statue can be removed, one can resort to other means of fighting these symbols of rebellion, white supremacy over minorities, and racism. For example, a community or organization, while fighting to remove the statue, could in the meanwhile, try erecting another of their own nearby. This could just be as effective and bold of a statement as removing a statue. I cannot condone breaking the law, but at the same time, I can’t blame some people for wanting action. Let’s face it: there are some things in history that are just too painful for us to be reminded every waking moment about.
“Artifacts of hate will be lost, but their history and meaning will not,” concludes Cox. If nothing can change the history, then why do we need something corporeal as a statue to remind us of it? We need something that can bring us together and I believe through the shared experience of researching history can we achieve this.
To conclude, in light of tragedies similar to those such as in Charlottesville and the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Let us all remember and take to heart these words as we try to move on from this horrific and sickening episode in our nation’s history, while remembering those who laid down their lives, like Heyer, for the noble causes of justice, liberty, and equality.
Joshua Alexander is a news writer and opinion columnist for The Mirror. He is a senior with a major in history secondary education.