Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children. Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities…. [T]hey are determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage.
-Donald Trump, speech at Mt Rushmore, 4th July
I am going to divulge some facts about Confederate statues that many of you may already know but there will be some of you who don’t. Yes, I am British and have only recently learnt about the true context of many of these statues, and who am I to comment on such issues? Well, a human being with some ability to rationalise and make moral evaluations.
The main point about this piece is to answer the argument that toppling such statues is tantamount to erasing history.
The assumed history concerning these statues is that they were raised in order to idolise the generals of the Confederacy shortly after the Civil War.
A few things need to be remembered here. Firstly, the Confederacy lost the war. In the battle of ideas concerning slavery, as reflected in the politics of war, the notion that slavery should be maintained at the cost of dehumanising black people lost. Considering this, it is odd to idolise the losing side – the ideas and the people. To raise a statue in support of such generals is to say “I believe in the ideology that these generals were fighting for even though they lost. Indeed, despite their losing, I am an advocate for slavery or the superiority of the white race.”
To support these statues remaining as statements appears to be, prima facie, a statement of support for such an idea. Not only this, but these historical figures were arguing for secession and were anti-Union. In other words, if you were a patriotic American, you should be very clearly against these generals and what they stood for. These guys were traitors; there are no statues to other US traitors.
Secondly, the idea that these statues should remain as a mere reflection of history is odd but also misrepresenting the actual history, in many cases.
Hitler lost and yet tearing down statues idolising him or his ideology were met with, “Well, yeah, of course.”
The thing is, most of the people defending these statues are either explicit defenders of race superiority or of the ideology that supports/facilitates this (i.e., conservatism in general) or are implicitly biased themselves without the self-awareness to realise this. Let’s take this bizarre coexistence of opinions:
Groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans defend the monuments, arguing they are an important part of history. One of the leaders of that group, Carl V. Jones, wrote a letter on Aug. 14 condemning the violence and “bigotry” displayed in Charlottesville, but he also denounced “the hatred being leveled against our glorious ancestors by radical leftists who seek to erase our history.”
On the one hand decrying the bigotry at Charlottesville and on the other literally saying how glorious Confederate generals are/were.
That aside, let’s look at the historical context that is actually in which many of these statues are set.
The issue is that many of these statues were not raised just after the Civil War but were erected much later on in order to fulfil an even more insidious purpose than “merely” celebrating the enslavement of black people. This purpose was to help crush growing civil rights movements gaining momentum for black populations. Wiki’s “Removal of Confederate monuments and memorials” states:
In an August 2017 statement on the monuments controversy, the American Historical Association (AHA) said that to remove a monument “is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history.” The AHA stated that most monuments were erected “without anything resembling a democratic process,” and recommended that it was “time to reconsider these decisions.” According to the AHA, most Confederate monuments were erected during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, and this undertaking was “part and parcel of the initiation of legally mandated segregation and widespread disenfranchisement across the South.” According to the AHA, memorials to the Confederacy erected during this period “were intended, in part, to obscure the terrorism required to overthrow Reconstruction, and to intimidate African Americans politically and isolate them from the mainstream of public life.” A later wave of monument building coincided with the civil rights movement, and according to the AHA “these symbols of white supremacy are still being invoked for similar purposes.” [my emphasis]
What this means is that these statues were actually tools in and of themselves of white supremacy and disenfranchisement of the black communities seeking equality.
“White supremacy is really what these statues represent,” says Judith Giesberg, a professor of history at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era.
The most recent comprehensive study of Confederate statues and monuments across the country was published by the Southern Poverty Law Center last year. A look at this chart shows huge spikes in construction twice during the 20th century: in the early 1900s, and then again in the 1950s and 60s. Both were times of extreme civil rights tension.
That there is one heck of an interesting infographic with its spikes coinciding with civil rights movements. NPR continues:
In the early 1900s, states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise black Americans. In the middle part of the century, the civil rights movement pushed back against that segregation.
James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, says that the increase in statues and monuments was clearly meant to send a message.
“These statues were meant to create legitimate garb for white supremacy,” Grossman said. “Why would you put a statue of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson in 1948 in Baltimore?”
A number of statues went up in 1948. Why on Earth would you win the most famous war ever against racism and race superiority to go and do that? It beggars belief.
Jane Dailey opines:
Key to this process was the disenfranchisement of nearly all African Americans and a significant number of white southerners, too.
The timing of Baltimore’s Jackson-Lee statue is very odd. Why should a city in a state that sat out the Civil War erect a Confederate monument in 1948? Who erects a statue of former Confederate generals on the very heels of fighting and winning a war for democracy? People who want to send a message to black veterans, the Supreme Court, and the president of the United States, that’s who.
In an interview with NPR, Dailey said it’s impossible to separate symbols of the Confederacy from the values of white supremacy. In comparing Robert E. Lee to Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on Tuesday, President Trump doesn’t seem to feel the same….
“I think it’s important to understand that one of the meanings of these monuments when they’re put up, is to try to settle the meaning of the war” Dailey said. “But also the shape of the future, by saying that elite Southern whites are in control and are going to build monuments to themselves effectively.”
“And those monuments will endure and whatever is going around them will not.”
I can’t see the final comment there maintaining in the present climate. We have seen, finally, the Mississipi flag looking to lose its Confederate flag in the corner, statues being toppled and this discussion being front and centre; point of fact being this British-based blog.
To conclude, these states should obviously come down (and building names and so on). It is unforgivable that they remain. It is not erasing history, it’s helping to erase the sentiments that the white race should be oppressing the black race, and all that this terrible trope entails. Why would you want these statues to remain? What steel man of an argument could possibly change my mind?
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