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The Fate of Confederate Monuments Should Be Clear

We know why they were built and why they have to come down.

RYAN M. KELLY/AFP/Getty Images

In the year since the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, and the mass protests that followed, Confederate monuments have come down with astonishing speed. According to a February 2021 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps the most exhaustive database of Confederate symbols nationwide, 94 monuments were taken down in 2020—nearly twice as many as in the four years prior combined. Even the removal of 54 monuments between 2015 and 2019 was a notable break from the past. Few had been removed since Southern states began erecting them en masse in the 1890s; in fact, the trend has gone almost entirely in the opposite direction, with a burst of Confederate monuments going up during the civil rights era, and another round dedicated at the turn of the twenty-first century.

No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice
by Karen L. Cox
UNC Press, 224 pp., $24.00

Surveying the speed of the recent removals, it’s tempting to see such statues becoming a thing of the past. But a closer look reveals a more troubling picture. More than 700 Confederate monuments remain standing, and not only in the South. And while some statues came down, Southern Republican lawmakers immediately began enacting a raft of “heritage protection acts” in response. Often modeled on South Carolina’s Heritage Protection Act, passed in 2000, these laws make it nearly impossible for Southern cities, many of them majority Black, to democratically remove Confederate symbols from public grounds, requiring, for instance, the approval of two-thirds of the state legislature—usually dominated by Republicans. In 2016, Tennessee strengthened its monument protection law to resemble South Carolina’s, and similar bills followed in Alabama in 2017 and Georgia in 2019. Not to be outdone, Donald Trump, amid the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, issued an executive order criminalizing vandalism of Confederate monuments nationwide.

To many Americans, the heated debates over Confederate monuments might seem new. But Karen L. Cox, a leading historian of Confederate memory, reminds us in No Common Ground, her brief, excellent overview of Confederate monument history, that these statues have been hotly contested since their inception. Through a swift survey of news reports, speeches, pamphlets, and legislative debates, she shows that in the minds of their Southern white creators and to Black communities, these monuments “have always been attached to the cause of slavery and white supremacy.”

It is hard, in fact, to ignore that Confederate monuments are part of a much larger culture of Confederate glorification. There’s little doubt why the monuments were erected; the question is why they have attracted more attention than other Confederate symbols and how we should deal with the myriad of forms of Confederate nostalgia—in films, books, plantation sites—that surround us.

Almost as soon as the Confederacy was defeated, Southern white elites began to craft an alternative history of the Civil War. In 1866, Edward A. Pollard, a journalist for the Richmond Examiner, wrote a 752-page revisionist history of the war titled The Lost Cause, which created the template for how many white Americans, and not only Southerners, would remember the conflict. In this telling, the South fought nobly in a war of Northern aggression. They were simply defending the constitutional principle of states’ rights—not slavery—and in so doing were upholding the constitutional principles of the Founding Fathers. Slavery became a nonissue in this telling, with the institution construed as “improving the African race humanly, socially, and religiously,” as Pollard wrote.

Though this Lost Cause mythology quickly captured the imaginations of many white Southerners—and continues to today—public monuments honoring Confederate leaders were rare before the 1890s. During Reconstruction, the 12-year period following the Civil War, the federal government oversaw the massive enfranchisement of Black male voters, and so long as Black officials were elected to office, public monuments honoring Confederate enslavers remained rare. But that changed dramatically after the overthrow of Reconstruction. Confederate veterans and their descendants began a massive campaign not only to disenfranchise Black voters and impose legal segregation but to reshape the Southern landscape in the Confederacy’s image.

Monuments to the Confederate dead were a central piece of this campaign. The overwhelming majority of Confederate monuments—nearly 80 percent—were erected between 1890 and 1940, which was, not coincidentally, the height of the Jim Crow era. Southern white women played a leading role in this campaign. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group for the descendants of Confederate soldiers and politicians, was founded in 1894 with a mission to preserve the Lost Cause mythology, “unto the third and fourth generations,” as one chapter’s constitution put it. They enacted that mission in a broad public education campaign that included monitoring textbooks, placing Confederate flags in classrooms, and creating youth groups, as well as raising monuments. Their embrace of white supremacy was no secret. In 1914, Laura Martin Rose, a UDC member, published a book praising the Ku Klux Klan for having “maintained white supremacy and secured Caucasian civilization.” Rebecca Latimer Felton, the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate, a suffragist, and a champion of the UDC’s work, ardently defended lynchings: “If it needs lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from ravening beasts, then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary.”

If there is any doubt that Confederate monuments were ever anything but bitterly contested, Cox devotes equal space to the unceasing protests of Black communities to their every appearance. Even before the explosion of Confederate monuments in the 1890s, Black Americans were denouncing Confederate nostalgia. In the 1870s, Frederick Douglass regularly mocked the “nauseating flatteries of the late Robert E. Lee,” the Confederate general who died in 1870, calling subsequent statues in his honor “monuments of folly.” The Chicago Defender, founded in 1905 and the nation’s most audacious Black newspaper, routinely covered—and crusaded against—new statues. “Every Confederate monument standing under the Stars and Stripes should be torn down and ground into pebbles,” it declared in 1920.

Given the threat of violence, Black people within the South were more discreet, but their disgust at Confederate monuments was equally apparent. Black Charlestonians routinely defaced a statue erected in 1887 to John C. Calhoun, who, though he died before the Civil War, was revered as the intellectual architect of the Confederacy’s states’ rights ideology. “Blacks took that statue personally,” remembered Mamie Garvin Fields, born in 1888. “We thought like [Frederick] Douglass, we hate all that Calhoun stood for.” Fields recalled how, early in the twentieth century, Black Charlestonians would “scratch up the coat, break the watch chain, try to knock off the nose” each time they passed it.

No Common Ground also corrects some recent misconceptions. Last summer, several media outlets misleadingly suggested that many of today’s Confederate monuments went up during the civil rights era. In fact, Cox tells us, only 5 percent of the roughly 800 known monuments were erected between 1950 and 1970, and many of those were erected for the Civil War’s centennial. To be sure, the convergence of the civil rights movement with the Civil War centennial, in the early 1960s, offered white supremacists an opportunity to deliberately create Confederate monuments to “rebel against the Second Reconstruction”—that is, civil rights legislation. But more telling than the number of new monuments raised in this period was the significance that existing monuments took on.

Cox makes the compelling point that during the civil rights era, existing monuments became focal points around which both pro- and anti-integrationists rallied. For instance, when James Meredith, an Air Force veteran and Black Mississippian, was about to integrate the University of Mississippi’s campus in September 1962, white protesters staged an anti-integration rally at a Confederate monument on campus (which soon turned into a riot that left two people dead). Four years later, Black activists, including Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., and Floyd McKissick, deliberately gathered at a Confederate monument in Mississippi during their campaign to register Black voters, as a way to “reclaim the public sphere for themselves,” Cox writes.   

Indeed, Cox argues that it was the partial successes of the civil rights movement that account for the limited number of monument dedications since the early 1970s. When Black people hold political office, she suggests, monuments to white supremacy are difficult to erect. It should come as no surprise, then, that few Confederate monuments were built during Reconstruction, and few have been built since the 1960s. Yet Cox also teases out the political sophistication of Confederate apologists. What has made it so difficult to take down Confederate monuments is not only the laws that apologists have passed to prevent removal but also how they have shifted their defense in a way that, to the uninformed observer, might sound reasonable, even positively liberal.

In 1977, when Harvey Gantt, at the time Charlotte’s only Black city councilman, objected to a Confederate monument being placed in front of city hall, the statue’s defenders successfully argued that it was a matter of “equity and diversity,” Cox writes. Since the city recently erected a statue in honor of Martin Luther King, the Confederate monument’s defenders claimed it was only equitable for white Southerners to have a statue honoring “Southern heritage.” During the 1990s, when multiculturalism was the liberal term of art, apologists framed Confederate monuments as odes to white Southerners’ hyphenated identity: They honored “Confederate Americans,” just as civil rights statues honored Black Americans. Most recently, Confederate monument defenders have drawn upon the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, rallying around slogans like “All Lives Matter” to defend these seemingly innocuous paeans to “Southern heritage.”

Though Cox occasionally gestures toward the complicity of non-Southern whites in defending Confederate statues, readers would have been well served by a more sustained focus on how and why Confederate symbols ended up in places like New York, Maine, Utah, and California. Unquestionably, it would have strengthened her basic point: These symbols have little to do with honoring “Southern heritage” (in the Bronx?) and everything to do with obscuring the central role slavery played in our nation’s history. 

No Common Ground was initially conceived in response to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—which, Cox reminds us, white nationalists organized to protest the city’s decision to remove a Robert E. Lee statue from a public park. Perhaps as a result, the book focuses only on monuments, though it sometimes detours into debates that are actually about Confederate flags. That conflation—between monument and flag—gets at a problem the book never really elucidates: Why do monuments honoring Confederates deserve our attention any more than schools or cities that do? As Cox herself notes, monuments are only one piece of a much larger range of public Confederate markers—school, park, and street names; U.S. military bases; state holidays—that saturate the Southern, indeed national, landscape.

Focusing on Confederate monuments has the benefit of offering specificity to the larger campaign to remove symbols of white supremacy from our cultural landscape. But it can also obscure the breadth of Confederate memorialization that hides in plain sight. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that, apart from the more than 700 Confederate monuments that remain standing, at least 900 public schools and universities, cities and counties, state holidays, and military bases still bear Confederate names. Meanwhile, in the private sphere, Confederate nostalgia remains strong. Plantation weddings are still popular. Private companies continue to sell Confederate T-shirts, hats, and bumper stickers unabated. And while Amazon no longer sells Confederate memorabilia, you can still purchase Gone With the Wind and similar books and films that sanitize slavery’s past on its website. 

None of this should discourage efforts to remove Confederate monuments from public grounds. But it is a reminder that the problem of Confederate nostalgia is far larger and more complex than a narrow focus on monuments allows. Heritage Protection Laws notwithstanding, the decision to take down a Confederate monument seems far easier than a decision regarding what to do with films or books or private companies that traffic in a similar Lost Cause mythology. Indeed, the relative simplicity of dislodging racist statues seems to highlight the enormity of the problem—the Lost Cause, and all it represents, lives on not only in a few hundred statues but in the culture of millions more people who may have never seen one.