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The summer of 2017 saw attempts to remove Confederate monuments and symbols from public spaces in the South, some of which were met with resistance from far-right groups. Wanda Rushing writes that, as was the case in the 1960s, these monuments have become the focus for white supremacist rallies, which have in turn attracted worldwide attention. As communities grapple with what to do with their Confederate monuments, it is important that they consider the monuments’ histories, the role of white identity, and the implicit racial bias present in American society.

Confederate Monuments rise above town squares and roundabouts, dominate public parks, and line busy streets in US states that seceded during the Civil War.  A few such monuments and symbols also appear in such unlikely places as Boston Harbor in Massachusetts and at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.  Others appear on university campuses, both private and public.  Civic-minded attempts to remove Confederate monuments and symbols from public spaces gained support and provoked opposition in 2017. Black Lives Matter protests since the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (2014), and the South Carolina legislature’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from the state Capitol after a Charleston church mass shooting (2015), amplified demands for removing Confederate statues and symbols. But resistance to removal campaigns also intensified in 2017, most notably following the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

For decades, supporters of Confederate monuments in public places have claimed “heritage,” not “hate” as justification for keeping more than 700 existing monuments in place. Critics dispute these claims, arguing that Confederate monuments overlook memories of the inhumanity and brutality of slavery and the war fought to end it. Moreover, studies show that the strongest supporters of monuments know less about Civil War history than their opponents.  Events last August struck another blow at the “heritage” argument when self-identified white nationalists held a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest removal of an imposing statue of Confederate Commanding General Robert E. Lee.  Waving Confederate battle flags alongside Nazi swastikas and bearing torches, more than 250 protestors, including former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, chanted “White lives matter” along with anti-Semitic and misogynistic epithets. The march across the University of Virginia campus ended in deadly violence against counter-protestors, killing one person and injuring 34 others. The President’s equivocal response attributing blame to “both sides” evoked praise from white supremacist organizations, high disapproval ratings from Americans polled, and criticism from world leaders.  Now shrouded in black tarps, the statue waits for the City of Charlottesville to defend its removal decision in court against a lawsuit filed by white nationalists. 

The Whole World is Watching

News of white nationalist activities in Charlottesville, particularly public displays of Nazi symbols and Confederate flags –the two most recognized symbols of white supremacy in the world – and shouts of anti-Semitic slogans, provoked international alarm.   “The whole world is watching” – a phrase used in the US Civil Rights movement in the 1950s, and in Vietnam War protests in the 1960s—once again gained currency. Fifty years ago Confederate monuments became prominent symbols of white resistance to the Civil Rights movement. Today the civil rights of immigrants, the poor, women, the LGBT community, and people of color face jeopardy in the United States.  Once again, these memorial landscapes have become scenes of white supremacist rallies, and the focus of global attention.   Today, in response to years of grassroots organizing, and demands to do the right thing, local governments and campus officials are more likely to openly question the presence of confederate memorials in public places.  Along with numerous civil rights organizations, academic organizations, including the American Historical Association, the American Sociological Association, and the American Association of University Professors, decry violence and offer support for removing monuments.

“Louisville puts the red light on a Confederate monument” by Don Sniegowski is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0

Setting the Record Straight

As communities consider options and imperatives for the removal and disposal of Confederate monuments and renaming public parks, we should keep in mind that Confederate monuments:  1) are sites of historical interpretation that require social context for understanding; 2) stand as scenes and symbols of white identity politics; and, 3) contribute to pervasive and on-going racial bias, producing far-reaching consequences.

  1. History For roughly one hundred years, Confederate monuments in prominent public spaces have mediated public memory about the Civil War. Most were installed 40 years after the Civil War, intending to disrupt black and white political coalitions, deny civil rights to African Americans gained through Civil War and Reconstruction, and justify Jim Crow segregation. They became powerful symbolic representations of elite culture of the New South, standing for a process of commemoration and reconciliation “that everyone knew but no one said was for and between whites”. These memorial landscapes exist because of decades of conscious effort and design to socialize southerners, both black and white, into their position in the social hierarchy, and to legitimate the exclusion of African Americans from public life. 
  1. White Identity Confederate spaces continue operating as centers of white identity politics. During the 1960s, opponents of the Civil Rights movement held rallies at these sites and embraced confederate flags as symbols of resistance. Members of the Ku Klux Klan meet at these sites to honor their founders and resist social change. The monument of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis, Tennessee provides one example. The KKK, past and present, meet there to celebrate their founder – a Confederate General, slave trader, and leader of the Fort Pillow Massacre.  Periodically the Klan gathers in Memphis to protest city efforts to rename confederate parks, and to remove statues.  The assembly of men wearing hoods and waving confederate flags before Kevlar-vested police officers attracted media attention in 2013 when Klansmen rallied downtown at the Courthouse to protest renaming Confederate parks. In December 2017, within minutes after the Memphis City Council approved an ordinance for removing monuments of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis, workers safely removed them.Collaborations between the KKK and Neo-Nazis began in the 1970s. Images of Nazi and Confederate symbols accompanied the political rise of David Duke in Louisiana. In 1979, a confrontation between the KKK and Neo-Nazis against a Communist Workers’ Party rally in Greensboro, NC ended in violence. Assailants displayed Confederate and Nazi symbols in their 1979 attack that left five dead. The arrests and trial ended in acquittal by an all-white jury. At the time, many local political leaders found fault with “both sides.”   Recently, the Greensboro City Council apologized for the city’s role in the shootings.  Contemporary leaders want to right a 40 year wrong. 
  1. Racial Bias Today, Americans struggle with the consequences of implicit bias in law enforcement, education, employment, and other venues. Questions emerge about the relevance of confederate statues and symbols for 21st century prejudice and discrimination. Studies show that exposure to Confederate symbols activates racial bias against African Americans. One analysis of the election of President Barack Obama indicates that once activated, this bias produces not only more negative impressions of Black candidates, but also negative judgments against African Americans more generally.    Hence, displays of Confederate symbols in prominent public places continue to provoke negative racial judgments and behaviors.

The Future

Protests and counter-protests about Confederate memorials in public spaces create long-overdue opportunities for understanding and contesting historically embedded institutional processes affecting all Americans. The decisions to remove monuments can be costly.  The removal of four confederate statues in New Orleans, which included provisions for worker safety, defending the decision in court, and the actual removal, cost more than $2 million.  But many Americans have decided the time has come to set the record straight about America’s past and the biases inculcated by more than one-hundred years of statue-building and hero-worshipping produced by a backlash following the Civil War and Reconstruction.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Wanda Rushing – University of Memphis
Wanda Rushing is Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Memphis. She is author of Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization in the American South (2009) and editor of Urbanization, Volume 15 of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (2010), both published by The University of North Carolina Press. She has published numerous articles on social inequality and the American South, most recently in Urban Studies (2016) and Urban Education (2017).