What was the real intent behind America’s Confederate memorials?
In response to the events in Charlottesville earlier this month, more and more activists have been pushing for the removal of Confederate monuments across America. For the most part, I agree with them. The Confederacy was a quintessentially anti-American organization that defied our democratic system and rebelled against the American union. To honor the Confederacy, in my opinion, is to honor an institution that was not only anti-American, but also anti-democratic. The biggest reason why Confederate monuments should come down, though, is centered on the reason why they were put up in the first place.
Very few monuments honoring the Confederacy were erected during the Reconstruction. The few monuments that were built during the years immediately following the war mostly honored fallen Southern soldiers rather than Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis. The majority of Confederate monuments were built between 1900 and 1940, with another notable group being built between 1955 and 1970.
A graph provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows an alarming correlation between the building of Confederate statues and the passage of notable civil rights legislation. This is most noticeable immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. As Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP advanced civil rights, the South (and even some non-Southern states) built more Confederate monuments. As African Americans gained civil rights, those who wished to stand in the way of progress built these monuments to send a message that white supremacy was here to stay. As Jane Dailey, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, put it, “Most of the people who were involved in erecting the monuments were not necessarily erecting a monument to the past, but were rather erecting them towards a white supremacist future.”
Memorials of the Confederacy were not meant to honor lost soldiers, but were instead a political tool to push back against civil rights. Statues of Robert E. Lee were not primarily erected to honor a brilliant general, but were erected as an attempt to blockade or slow down civil rights. Politically motivated memorials actually tend to have the effect of dishonoring the loss of Confederate soldiers by using their deaths to serve an agenda. Memorials that were truly created with the intent of honoring lost Confederate soldiers should stay. Take the Confederate memorial in the Arlington, which depicts Southerners of all genders and race in an attempt to show the hardships of the war that affected all of them. This is a memorial done carefully and correctly. Another giant statue of Jefferson Davis erected in response to the civil rights movement is not.
You will hear many claim that the removal of statues is akin to rewriting history. This is perhaps the weakest argument for keeping Confederate monuments. We can still teach about the Confederacy in schools and display Confederate flags in museums. Why not handle the Confederacy the same way Germany handles its Nazi past? German citizens are aware of the horror that took place in their country only seventy years ago, but German Jewish children are not forced to walk across Adolf Hitler Park, passing statues of Heinrich Himmler on their way to go to Joseph Goebbels Middle School.
Unfortunately, though, some on the left have decided to take the removal of Confederate memorials farther and have now called for the removal of other memorials honoring figures like Thomas Jefferson. This is misguided and threatens to sink any successes we as a country may have in removing Confederate monuments.
Unlike the builders of the Confederate monuments, the people who built memorials to Jefferson, George Washington did not do so in an attempt to make minorities feel unwelcome. These memorials were built to honor great American leaders who were crucial in the creation of our country. While our country should do a better job of acknowledging that these men were not perfect, that does not mean that we should dismantle these monuments. And by going after monuments to people like Jefferson, the left also reinforces the stereotype that it is made up of snowflakes who are offended by everything. A good idea would be to keep these monuments up while also building new monuments and new parks for historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. (which we have done and should continue to do).
Confederate monuments were created with the intent of making African Americans feel unwelcome, so they should be taken down. The Washington Monument was created with the intent of honoring the foundation of our country, so it should stay. If, for example, there were monuments of Andrew Jackson in a Native American reservation that were built with the intent of making Native Americans feel unwelcome, then they should by all means be taken down.
It is totally reasonable that Native Americans feel uncomfortable with a statue of Andrew Jackson. The Jackson administration was responsible for the unforgivable deaths of tens of thousands of Native Americans through events like the Trail of Tears. And if there is any statue erected to honor the Trail of Tears it absolutely should be removed. Jackson’s statue in New Orleans located in Jackson Square, though, is celebrating his military victory over the British in the War of 1812, not his effect on Native American life. When analyzing these monuments it is important to look past the individual represented on the monument and look at what the monument is truly honoring. The Jackson Square statue is honoring an American military victory; Stephens Park, on the other hand, is honoring the idea of a nation built upon the foundation of inequality for blacks. Similarly, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington D.C. is not honoring Roosevelt’s internment of the Japanese, but rather his superb leadership during the Great Depression.
With this in mind, it is more than reasonable to expect that we, as a country, should make a coordinated effort to remove Confederate monuments that were put up with malicious intentions. This has nothing to do with being overly offended at our past. While there do exist confederate monuments, like the one in Arlington, that are not obnoxiously aggressive and are only quietly honoring fallen soldiers, these are not the norm. Having thousands of giant statues of Jefferson Davis that were built in an attempt to make minorities unwelcome does not honor the dead. It manipulates their loss for the political needs of white supremacists.
At the end of the day, every individual is flawed, but monuments often represent ideas or victories beyond the individual. So when we analyze a monument it is vitally important that we understand its purpose. Many Confederate monuments were built by white supremacists in order to make African Americans feel unwelcome. Let us, as a nation, tear them down and let white supremacists know that they are actually the ones who are unwelcome.
Jonah Ullendorff is a staff writer for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.