Thursday 13 December 2018

Confederate monuments are not mere 'harmless history'

The defaced General Robert E Lee statue at the Duke Chapel in Durham, North Carolina. Photo: AP
The defaced General Robert E Lee statue at the Duke Chapel in Durham, North Carolina. Photo: AP

Chris Graham in New York

The rally by white nationalists to defend the monument to Robert E Lee in Charlottesville and the destruction of a monument to Confederate soldiers in Durham, North Carolina, two days later have stoked the ongoing debate over Confederate statues.

US President Donald Trump suggested on Tuesday that the torchlight rally by neo-Nazis and other white supremacists was merely a defence of the past.

He said: "So this week it's Robert E Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? Where does it stop?"

But are these monuments truly innocuous symbols of Confederate heritage, as their defenders argue? History tells us otherwise.

Almost none of the monuments was put up right after the civil war. Some were erected during the civil-rights era in the early 1960s, which coincided with the war's centennial - but the vast majority of monuments date to between 1895 and World War I.

They were part of a campaign to paint the southern cause in the civil war as just and slavery as a benevolent institution.

Their installation came against a backdrop of violence and oppression of African-Americans. The monuments were put up as explicit symbols of white supremacy.

The group responsible for the majority of these memorials was the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), the most influential white women's organisation in the south in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Honouring Confederate heroes, generals and soldiers alike, was one of the group's primary objectives and the hundreds of monuments throughout the south - and beyond - serve as testimony to their aggressive agenda to vindicate the Confederacy.

That lasting power of the mythology they made is still evident today in the raging battles over the fate of the memorials.

The 1890s, when the UDC was founded and monument-building began in earnest, represented a decade of virulent racism across the south. Not content to disenfranchise black men, southern whites went on a lynching spree.

Violence against blacks only increased in the early decades of the 20th century.

Amid that brutality, the pace of Confederate monument construction increased. The UDC and other like-minded heritage organisations were intent on honouring the Confederate generation, establishing a revisionist history of the civil war.

According to this, the south went to war to defend states' rights and slavery was essentially a benevolent institution that imparted Christianity to African "savages". The Daughters regarded the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic organisation, necessary to return order to the south. Order, of course, meant the use of violence to subdue newly freed blacks.

During the era of segregation, Confederate monuments could be placed almost anywhere. Some were in a cemetery or a park, but far more were placed on the grounds of local and state courthouses.

These monuments, then, represented not only reverence for soldiers who fought in a war to defend slavery; 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.

Monument building, and the suppression of African Americans, did not occur in a southern Jim Crow vacuum. White northerners were complicit, either through their silence or via the process of sectional reconciliation.

They shared white southerners' beliefs about what was then called "Anglo Saxon" supremacy.

Monuments were tangible signs of reconciliation. The ultimate such symbol was the Confederate memorial unveiled in Arlington National Cemetery in the summer of 1914.

On June 3, Jefferson Davis's birthday, Union veterans joined Confederate veterans and members of the Daughters of the American Revolution joined members of the UDC, for the unveiling of what was billed as a "peace monument".

The "peace" may have been about ending hostility between the regions, but the monument itself honours a narrative that met the white south's litmus test, as it contains images of heroic Confederate soldiers, faithful slaves and wording that vindicates their cause.

While Confederate monuments did honour their white heroes, they did not always rely on the true history of what took place between 1861 and 1865.

Nor was that their intent. Rather, they served to rehabilitate white manhood - not as the losers of a war, but, as the monument in Charlotte states, preservers of "the Anglo Saxon civilisation of the south".

Today's defenders of Confederate monuments are either unaware of the historical context or do not care.

Like generations of whites before them, they are more invested in the mythology that has attached itself to these sentinels of white supremacy, because it serves their cause.

Karen Cox is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author, most recently, of 'Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race and the Gothic South'.

(© Washington Post)

Irish Independent

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