Confederate symbols have become a crucible of racial tension in the US. White nationalists claim they are important monuments – but are they just a way to rewrite an ugly history and revive the battles of the past?
In St Paul’s memorial church in Charlottesville, Virginia, last Friday, just up the street from where white supremacists were gathering for a torchlight rally, Cornel West explained why African Americans saw the removal of Confederate monuments as so important.
On hearing that hundreds of white supremacists were gathered in a nearby park, the civil rights leader said, with a hint of weariness: “These are chickens coming home to roost. We should have eliminated these statues a long time ago.
“The idea that the American family has to embrace figures like [Confederate general] Robert E Lee, or Stonewall Jackson, who were fundamentally committed to enslaving black people in perpetuity … These people are not heroes.”
But figures such as Lee and Jackson are heroes to some. Their admirers include Donald Trump. In a rowdy press conference on Tuesday, he compared them to celebrated figures in American history such as presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Their admirers also include the white nationalist movement, which is currently surging in the US. The footsoldiers of that movement terrorised Charlottesville last weekend. Trump downplayed their violent excesses, saying they were merely “there to protest the taking down the statue of Robert E Lee”.
The day after the torchlight parade, a rally featuring hundreds of mostly young men in various states of paramilitary attire shut the city down. Hours later, one of their number allegedly murdered a counter-protester with his car. The next day, a planned memorial to the young woman who had been killed was shut down after “credible threats” from white nationalists.
Their stated purpose in coming to the city for the “unite the right” rally was to contest the removal of a statue of Lee from a downtown park. In the blizzard of online agitprop that “alt right” groups circulated before the event, the claim was often made that in rallying around the statue they were protecting “white heritage”.
But how did monuments to the losing side in America’s civil war become such an intense focus for a national white-supremacist movement? And what is the heritage they really represent?
Charlottesville’s statue of Lee is one of about 1,500 such monuments to the Confederacy scattered throughout the US. Mostly, though not exclusively, those statues can be found in those southern states that broke from the union in 1861 over their desire to retain the system of slavery. In 1865, after the loss of more than 600,000 lives and the destruction of entire cities such as Atlanta, the southern Confederacy was defeated, and slavery was abolished.
But like most of the other monuments to the confederacy’s “lost cause”, the statue in Charlottesville was not built in the immediate aftermath of that war. Rather, it was commissioned more than half a century later in 1917, and erected in 1924.
It was part of a wave of statue-building in the south that took place between the late 1890s and 1920, according to research from the Southern Poverty Law Center. That wave crested in about 1911.
There was another, later, flurry of statue-building in the 50s, and around this time the Confederate battle flag became a popular symbol. In that decade and the next, some southern states, such as Florida, changed their flags to more closely resemble the standard of southern defeat.
According to Joseph Lowndes, a political scientist at the University of Oregon and author of two books on the US’s racial politics and the south, the timing of these enthusiasms is not accidental. “The statues go up in moments of racial reaction.”
The earlier craze was the moment when Lowndes says, “the Jim Crow order was really being built in the south”. So-called Jim Crow laws formally segregated public schools, public transport and public spaces generally in former confederate states. Laws mandated that black people and white people use separate restaurants, toilets and drinking fountains.
According to Lowndes, the Jim Crow phenomenon was a reaction to the inroads made by the populist movement, which had fleetingly created political alliances of poor blacks and whites against the rich southern planter class.
Lowndes says that southern elites sought to “take blacks out of the electorate and segregate public space” in order to “redivide the black and white core” of the south’s working class and small farmers. The monuments were also elements of this divide-and-rule strategy. They were ultimately built for a white audience, as “elements of a culture that directed whites towards beliefs that aligned them with the planters”, says Lowndes. “It was a political project. Any political project requires symbols, and an imaginary.”
One of the core beliefs at the heart of the Jim Crow project – and which these laws sought to implant – was that the civil war had not been an ignominious defeat, but a noble struggle. Leonard Zeskind, activist and author of Blood and Politics, a history of white nationalism in the US, says the purpose of the hundreds of statues erected around the turn of the century was “to rewrite who won the war”, in order to justify Jim Crow.
Lowndes says it was in part an effort to “whitewash the civil war, and the reasons it was fought”. Eventually, Jim Crow was dealt a blow by the supreme court’s 1954 finding, in Brown v Board of Education, that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. From this time, a black-led civil rights movement fought to extend the implications of this decision into the full desegregation of the south, and carried the fight into other areas such as voting rights.
But many whites in the south, and their state and local governments, fought tooth and nail to preserve segregation. They were, in effect, fighting the civil war all over again. In Virginia, a strategy of “massive resistance” devised by Senator Harry F Byrd Sr saw integrated schools defunded and schools closed, including in Charlottesville.
It was during this white resistance to civil rights that confederate symbols and statues once again became popular, and were adopted both by ordinary people and whole states, as signifiers of the resilience of white supremacy. And it was during this time that there was another surge in the number of statues erected throughout the southern states.
Lowndes says: “They are presented as being part of a continuous heritage, but the idea that these symbols have anything to do with anything but racial reaction is wrong.”
Not everyone agrees with this assessment – in particular, contemporary white Americans. According to the American Values Survey by not-for-profit polling organisation PRRI, around seven in 10 working-class whites believe that the flag is a symbol of “southern pride” rather than “racism”. Sixty percent of whites of all classes feel this way, and so do 51% of Americans as a whole – whereas 80% of black Americans say it is a racist symbol, and it is African Americans fighting for racial justice who have been the foremost critics of confederate symbols since they were erected.
The great African American intellectual WEB DuBois wrote in 1931 of the grandiose inscriptions on recently erected monuments to the confederacy that: “Of course, the plain truth of the matter would be an inscription something like this: ‘Sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.’” Later, Zeskind says, “the memorials started to get questioned in the 1960s in the fight against Jim Crow, and its been pretty much going ever since”.
Since the 2015 massacre of nine African American churchgoers by Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina, there has been a renewed focus on the persistence of confederate monuments and symbols in southern cities from racial justice advocates, including the Black Lives Matter movement. In the wake of the Charleston murders, South Carolina’s then governor, Nikki Haley, ordered the removal of the confederate flag from the grounds of the state house in Columbia. But racial justice advocates want to go further by removing all confederate relics from southern cities.
In Charlottesville on Friday, local Black Lives Matter chapter member Lisa Woolfork explained that for her and her fellow activists, “these statues themselves are revisionist histories. They hide history. They tell a story from the 1920s of the ‘lost cause’. It’s a way of making the slave-holding south feel like they won.”
But while critics of the statues have been mobilising, white nationalists have been turning the statues into rallying points for resistance to multiculturalism, feminism and minority rights. For them the fight never really stopped, and now it goes on as they rally around these symbols of the confederacy.
Lowndes says that: “These were largely regional sites as late as the 1990s,” of interest mostly to southern heritage groups, but also to more extremist “neoconfederate” groups such as the Council of Conservative Citizens, and the League of the South. (Neoconfederates generally desire the restoration of segregation as a matter of law, and some, such as the League of the South, even want the old confederacy to once again secede.) “But they have now become national sites for a racist rightwing movement. They allow people to feel embattled. You can rally people to a last defence.”
Alexander Reid Ross is a lecturer at Portland State University, and author of Against the Fascist Creep, a broad historical survey of fascist movements to the present. He agrees that confederate monuments have at once given the “alt-right” a convenient set of symbols to organise around, and also swelled the constituency for radical neoconfederate groups.
“Five or 10 years ago,” Ross says, “there wasn’t even a big regional constituency for neoconfederates. But the increase in college organising by the ‘alt-right’ and neo-Nazi groups has given them a new base.”
The alleged murderer in Charlottesville last Saturday, James Fields Jr, was himself a member of a group, Vanguard America, that explicitly targets college-age men in its recruiting, and hundreds of young men were active participants in the weekend’s events. The spectacle in Charlottesville of the League of the South marching alongside neo-fascist and neo-Nazi organisations such as Vanguard America, the Traditionalist Workers Party and the National Socialist Movement demonstrates that to some extent, their objectives have fused.
Ross says that confederate monuments are attractive to these groups partly because they represent a period of unquestioned white supremacy. “The civil war is seen as the last stand of a proper, gentlemanly white tradition.” But they also have value in terms of movement strategy. He compares their selection of the Lee monument in Charlottesville to the “patriot movement”-inspired occupation of the Malheur national wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016. “You place an insurrectionary point somewhere and have people rally around it.”
George Hawley, a political scientist at the University of Alabama, and author of two books that examine dissident rightwing movements, says that national far-right movements have been attracted to the fight over Charlottesville’s monument partly from “opportunism, and a desire for controversy … But it also comes from their sincere feeling that attacks on confederate monuments are attacks on whiteness, per se.”
He says that the discussion around confederate monuments is indicative of the growing estrangement between a resurgent radical right, and an embattled mainstream conservatism. In the past, he says, “mainstream conservative media outlets were supportive of the maintenance of confederate symbols”, and did so under catchphrases such as “heritage, not hate”. This changed after Roof’s rampage in Charleston: establishment and so-called “movement” conservatives “stopped defending monuments”.
On the other hand, over the same two years, passionate defenders of confederate symbols began “echoing the progressive critique of the monuments”, offering “a more radical pushback against the idea that it wasn’t about race”. From “heritage not hate”, then, some moved to the admission that their heritage was hate.
This was perfectly timed with the rise of the “alt-right”. Like that broader white nationalist movement, they sought to leave behind the “dog-whistling”, coded talk about race that Republicans had been honing since Nixon realigned the south’s politics with his “southern strategy”, and openly push white supremacy.
Southern politicians in communities polarised around disputes over monuments sometimes try to equivocate. During the debate over the statue of General Lee in Charlottesville, Mayor Mike Signer suggested that instead of removing such statues, they could be “contextualised” with plaques or installations explaining the civil war and the reasons it was fought.
Woolfork, the Black Lives Matter activist, disagrees. “There is no better context for these statues than the hundreds of white nationalists coming to defend them.” She says they need to go, because “you cannot tell beautiful lies about ugly stories”.
There have been signs in the days since that the events in Charlottesville may have only accelerated the movement against confederate statues. In Durham, North Carolina, a group of protesters pulled down a monument dedicated in 1924. On Tuesday night in Baltimore, hours after Trump’s incendiary press conference, the city removed four confederate memorials, including one of Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Other cities have committed to tearing statues down since the weekend.
For Cornel West, the sooner the better. As the white nationalist torchlight rally prepared to kick off not a mile away, he said that the heritage the statues speak for is not worth commemorating. “The confederacy is part of a tradition that’s grounded in hatred, and is tied to one of the most vicious structures of domination in the modern world.”
After the weekend’s events, it may be that more of the white Americans who consider these symbols a matter of “pride” come to see his point.
• This article was amended on 16 August 2017 to remove an erroneous reference to the “stars and bars” Confederate flag.
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