Confederate Monuments Are Not History
Like the contemporary war on "critical race theory," these statues of the defeated prop up white supremacy in the name of a false past
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Monument to Robert E. Lee, with protest graffiti Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Mobilus In Mobili/Wikimedia Commons
It seemed as though monuments were suddenly in the news during Donald Trump’s presidency, but they have always been controversial. Monuments to the Confederacy were contested by African American citizens as soon as they appeared after 1865. Black citizens understood these monuments for what they were: a rallying point for the reassertion of white political and social domination. By the 1970s, when the voting rights once again opened the door to Black officeholding in the South, the push to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces intensified.
But in the past five years, the debate over monuments has merged with a national movement to end white supremacy. I was able to sit down with Karen L. Cox, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the founding director of the graduate public history program, to talk about the issues at stake and her new book, No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice (University of North Carolina Press, 2021).
Claire Potter: Can you tell our readers why you wrote No Common Ground?
Karen Cox: Initially, I thought: “I'm the right person to do it because of my work on the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).” But I also wanted to write a book that people could use, something accessible that could help them have community conversations about Confederate monuments.
I believe that there are people out there who are open-minded. If I can provide a proper historical context, they can develop an informed opinion about what these monuments represent. So it’s not only a heritage issue or a Black Lives Matter issue. It's also about what counts as history.
CP: The first point you make in the book is that these monuments are fake history.
KC: Yes. The idea of a Southern “Lost Cause,” which is what these monuments memorialize, is revisionist history. Immediately after 1865, Southern writers rewrote the Civil War narrative and what it was about to portray themselves as undefeated. Losing generals and soldiers were transformed into heroes who may have lost battles—but successfully defended principles.
So it's really not history; it's memory-making. African Americans understood this immediately. And it’s deliberate because these writers didn't have to look back too far to read the minutes of the succession conventions and understand what people like Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, said the war was about.
CP: You and I know that the war was about white people’s right to own Black souls, and Stephens—who enslaved people—knew that too. Historians like William Archibald Dunning dressed it up with language about freedom and independence and the Constitution. But what was at stake was the right to earn money from the unpaid labor of Black people and to buy and sell those people at will.
So, what was the initial stage of reconfiguring this new history of the Civil War through monuments?
KC: The very first monuments are in cemeteries. There was real work to be done: bringing soldiers back from battlefields to give them a proper burial. But they always left space in these Confederate cemeteries for a monument. The speeches at the unveilings and who was chosen to give them tell the tale of how the justification for the war was already being revised, only months after the end of the war.
After Reconstruction ended in 1877, monument building moved to the public square, and the speeches were ramped up even more. But, again, they were driving home key points: that the war wasn't about slavery, for example, and that there was a contemporary need to preserve Anglo-Saxon supremacy.
They also turned Robert E. Lee into a Teflon hero. Ironically, since his image is on so many of them, Lee was not in favor of monument building. But he died in 1870, and, really, the Lost Cause myth was bigger than him or any Confederate leader. It was about all these Southern men who had suffered defeat and were, in a sense, emasculated by it. They went into the war thinking, “We're going to whip the Yankees,” and they had to go home with their tails between their legs. The myth of the Lost Cause helped them cope with that loss and imagine a New South that was not really new, where they could be heroes and protectors of white women.
Some of these Confederate veterans reclaimed their heroism as members of the Ku Klux Klan. Their story was taught in schools, merging the narrative of the war and a more contemporary determination to subjugate free Black people. Mrs. S.E.F Rose, Laura Martin Rose, wrote a book about the KKK in 1914 that she meant to be used as a primer for schoolchildren. She made a very clear case for maintaining white supremacy and explains that Confederate veterans were the original Ku Klux. This is how the Lost Cause emerges as an official alternative history that mirrors the story public monuments tell.
CP: And it’s preserving that fake history, one that justifies white supremacy and presents the Confederacy as a shadow white nation within a multicultural nation, that is essentially the argument for preservation today.
You also emphasize that white women were critical players in this movement to rewrite history.
KC: The Ladies' Memorial Associations (LMA) were an outgrowth of the Soldiers' Aid Societies established to help veterans, and they see this as part of the job. But white women also shared the same views about race and politics as the white men in their communities. Men couldn't do this work: Union troops had defeated them. But women hadn’t been defeated.
The Civil War also changed white women's lives, Southern white women especially, giving them new rights and privileges. They saw a new public role for themselves, and taking charge of Confederate memorialization was a way to activate it. Once the LMA got going, women became outstanding fundraisers, and they have leverage. The Lee monument in Richmond is a classic example of that. Former General Jubal Early thought it was his project, but he had to go to Janet Randolph of the LMA for the money. She demanded a seat at the table and wouldn’t hand over the money unless women had a say in the design.
This is the perfect thing about Confederate memorialization. These white women were consummate fundraisers. They were great public speakers. They were political lobbyists. And you might think I was describing suffragists, but what they were doing was completely non-threatening to white men because it was activism designed to prop them up politically.
White women make careers in these organizations. If you're a member of the UDC, you might become president of the local chapter, or of the state division, or ultimately head honcho of the entire organization. These organizations allowed white women to use their education and class privilege and own some public space. But they could only do that because of Black disfranchisement and lynching: violence cleared the path for their authority.
CP: This moment after the Civil War--when white men and women are saying, "We might've lost the war, but we didn't fail; we weren't defeated"—has an eerie parallel. After the 2020 election, Donald Trump's supporters said something similar: "Well, we didn't have the most votes, but we didn't lose the election."
KC: That’s very similar to the language of the Lost Cause, and similarly, it establishes Trumpism as just and sacred. As Edward Pollard, who wrote the first history of the Confederacy in 1866, titled The Lost Cause, said: "The only two things that have been decided are military defeat and the end of slavery. Nothing else has been decided."
CP: Perhaps this is why these monuments are so entwined with today’s politics. For many white people, the political questions of Black equality and federalism at the heart of the Civil War are still undecided 150 years later.
KC: That’s right: when we are talking about Confederate monuments today, we're really talking about our contemporary political divide and how those monuments represent it. That’s always been true. They're not static symbols, and to their defenders, their meaning changes over time.
CP: But Black southerners had great clarity, right from the beginning, about what these monuments meant, and they didn’t waver: monuments to the Confederacy are about white supremacy and a political ideology that upholds that.
KC: Yes. Whether it's the courthouse lawn or Monument Avenue in Richmond, public space theoretically belongs to all citizens. It should represent democratic values. Instead, these monuments say to Black citizens: you're second class. And the evidence for that is graphic: lynchings occurred there. Local jails, where Black men are primarily incarcerated, have monuments nearby. It's where you're supposed to register to vote, and it's the local center of our democratic government, but Confederate monuments say to Black people: you’re not part of it.
CP: The big dude on a horse is literally guarding the government against Black participation.
KC: Or the little dude on a pedestal, representing the ordinary white men in the county that went into battle. And, yes, a monument to this fictional Confederate past dominates the political, civic, or educational landscape where it is built.
I get calls and emails from attorneys who have Black defendants on precisely this point. What does it mean to have white jurors pass a monument on their way into a trial? What does it mean to have a big portrait of a local Confederate general in the courtroom when you have a Black defendant whose life is at stake?
These were intentional gestures then, and they are now. Nearby here, in the town of Gastonia, an attorney has taken on a monument in front of the courthouse, and guess what? The courthouse was built in 1996. So, they made an effort to move the monument from the original courthouse to the new courthouse. So, it's not like they can't move these things. But by moving it to the front of a brand new courthouse, they're doubling down on what the monument means.
CP: One of the things I was struck by in No Common Ground, particularly the chapters about the 19th century, was the enormous sums of money involved in these things. The South was not a wealthy place after the war, and it didn’t begin to recover economically for decades. So, where did these committees get the funds?
KC: The high point of monument building was between 1910 and 1911, towards the end of the period when Southern states successfully implement Jim Crow, and then it slows down because interest drops off and they actually can’t get the money anymore. But that’s right: these monuments cost millions in today's currency, and they tapped lots of different sources. They drummed up money from little children, all the way up to businessmen and leaders of local government. They got money from the city council and the state legislature, public funds that Black taxpayers paid into. Like the statue of Lee in Richmond, the bigger ones were paid for by raising money from every state in the South and probably beyond.
CP: Can we talk about the present and the fierce attacks on the history of race in this country being mounted in state legislatures and school boards across the country? Is this new or a new phase of something old?
KC: We have seen this over and over: African Americans make some progress in refocusing the nation on civil rights, and all of a sudden, it's like: “Oh hell, what can we do to stop this?” I think we're in another phase of Jim Crow, this time with whites in the GOP determined to silence any talk of race at all.
CP: And when you do that, you substitute a false past for a true one.
KC: Yes. It's almost like Republicans are drawing from a UDC playbook that emphasized a long game: teach children our point of view so that they will defend it in the future. But, unfortunately, the UDC's game wasn't just about looking backward. Instead, it was about molding future white citizens of the South.
What’s going on now with the attacks on “critical race theory” seems similar. It isn't just backlash from having a Black president. It's about: “In the future, how do we prevent that from happening again?”
It’s frightening how effective this stuff is. The UDC and the Lost Cause were so damn successful that white people still say: "Oh, the Civil War was about states' rights, not slavery." Monuments play an important role in these debates: they are now a wedge to drive between people, some of whom truly believe that these are physical representations of a true past. Accusations about erasing history are inflammatory, even when that history is fake. Debates about preserving heritage are really about preserving white heritage.
CP: And writing Black people out of history.
KC: Yes, and it's so dangerous since it requires us to ignore and deny the true history of our whole nation.
CP: Over time, anti-racist Southern white women have not been treated well when making the points you are making. What kind of pushback do you get, and how do you handle it?
KC: I'm finally going out on the road in the fall for talks and book festivals, and I'm about to find out. I am not targeted nearly as viciously as African American scholars are. I know that. But the last talk I gave, there were guys in Trump hats sitting in the middle of the audience challenging me. So I've gotten some nasty emails. When I've had an op-ed in the New York Times about this stuff, I've gotten blow-back.
I have, on occasion, requested security when I felt like there was some chatter happening before I went out. I'm giving one in Richmond and another at Washington and Lee University, where these issues are live, and Sons of Confederate Veterans guys are protesting all the time. So, I did request security at those two places.
CP: We also know people may now be armed.
KC: Right! The publicist at my press said, "Do you want to go to the Texas Book Festival?" I was like, "No." I said, "I'll do it virtually."
One of the things that I'm able to do, though, is to play on my Southern credentials. I can talk about being a white Southerner growing up here. It disarms some of the hostility. But I also don't suffer fools on this issue. If they're in the room, I'm ready. I don't have to write or interpret this for anyone: their own ancestors made it very plain what Confederate monuments were about. All they have to do is read the documents.
CP: I love that fierceness. And I think the fierceness is in the title of this book, No Common Ground. In a day and age in which there's all of this happy talk about unity and compromise, you're saying: “Actually, no—there's a right and a wrong.”
KC: Yes, but the divisions on this issue can mask opportunities to persuade people. On the one hand, some people are clear: “Let's knock them all down.” Then, there are the people who want to preserve all the monuments. But I hope this book reaches the people in the middle, who aren’t sure what they think.
The last public talk I gave, in front of those guys with the Trump hats, a lady came up to me afterward. She was on a walker. And I thought, oh, here we go: I'm going to hear about the ancestor. But what she said to me was, "You changed my mind."
Some of the most recent talks I've given have been to people of faith. I've spoken to a Presbyterian church in Charlotte that has some Confederate stained glass windows in their church. I've talked to them a couple of times. I spoke to the North Carolina Council of Churches. When I first went on the road and was in Louisville, KY, I was at something that was organized by both a Black minister and a white lawyer.
That makes me believe that my effort to tell this story is not a lost cause. Because here are these interracial groups that I've spoken to that are saying, "We hear it. What can we do about it? And we want to learn more about it."
I think that gives me some hope.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
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