Would the removal of Confederate statues from public spaces be a mistake? Writing in the Washington Post, legal scholar Alfred Brophy believes it would. Brophy contends that the removal of Confederate monuments would “quite literally, erase an unsavory — but important — part of our nation’s history.”
Unlike recent claims by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) — who insist that removing Confederate monuments would constitute a form of “cultural cleansing,” Brophy uses less emotive language to argue that the removal of Confederate statues will sever our connection to the past. Both Brophy and the SCV are wrong.
The removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces will not sever our connection to the past any more than it would, as the Sons of Confederate Veterans assert, constitute a form of “anti-Southernism” or “totalitarian and demagogic thinking.”
Instead, removing Confederate statues from Southern cities and towns forces Americans to confront the historical significance of racial slavery and the enduring legacy of Jim Crow segregation — actual sources of totalitarianism and demagoguery in America.
Black Americans are not likely to let white Southerners forget this heritage. Whether it’s John Lewis’ recent re-enactment of the famous civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., half a century ago, or President Obama speaking candidly about how racism is “part of our DNA,” white Southerners need not worry that their history will be cleansed from the nation’s collective consciousness.
Of course, the history that Lewis and Obama give voice to isn’t the fiction of the “Lost Cause” that some in the South still cling to.
Instead, Lewis and Obama evoke a darker history, a history defined by the brutalizing effects of slavery and the authoritarianism of Jim Crow segregation. It’s a history that casts a very long shadow over not just the South, but the entire nation.
It’s this darker, more brutal past, that made the South’s Confederate statues possible. Those monuments, like the Confederate battle flag, helped to galvanize white opposition to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Where statues to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson or J.E.B. Stuart represent monuments to men who fought to entrench the racial divide between black and white Americans, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. worked to breach that divide.
Still, more than a few white Southerners actively worked to prevent integration and stop the prospect of future generations mixing and marrying across the color line. During the 1950s and 1960s, most white Southerners saw the world through the lens of what the journalist Robert Sherrill called “scrotum sociology.” Sherrill’s provocative phrase sought to highlight the obsessive paranoia that whites (both men and women) had with idea of young black boys raping white girls in public schools following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.
These memories remain alive in the minds of millions of Americans, both black and white. In her recent book on public school desegregation (“Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle”) journalist Kristen Green, a former reporter at The Times-Dispatch, highlights how some of the patriarchs of white society believed to their dying days that closing the county’s public schools was the right thing to do if it meant preventing black boys from taking sexual liberties with white girls.
This is a painful history that continues to shape American life; it’s not likely to be forgotten anytime soon.
So what of these monuments to Confederate war heroes and politicians? I agree with Brophy that they are reminders of a darker past. And the Sons of Confederate Veterans have a point too when they insist those monuments are part of Southern heritage. Confederate statues, therefore, do have a place in 21st-century America: in museums, where the monuments to leaders of unjust, failed and vanquished states belong.
To say Confederate statues mean different things to different people is as misinformed as it is willfully ignorant of the history that led to their erection. So, it is in America’s museums and historical societies we can overcome this misguided view and learn about the heritage these Southern men bequeathed to the modern United States. The secessionist fight to perpetuate slavery, to monumentalize their racist cause, is a story that can teach generations of Americans some important historical lessons about the moral wrong of slavery, the folly of racism and the demagoguery of Jim Crow segregation.
Perhaps, then, I should give the last word to John Mitchell, a former slave and the editor of the Richmond Planet. Mitchell wrote in 1890 what many Americans are thinking in 2015 when he editorialized on the unveiling of the Robert. E. Lee Monument in Richmond: “He (the Negro) put up the Lee Monument, and should the time come, will be there to take it down.”
The time has come.
Gregory D. Smithers is an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. His most recent book is “The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity” (Yale University Press, 2015). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.