This is an update of a post originally published on 18 July 2017. Vandalism of Confederate monuments first got a lot of notice at that time and I predicted it would continue and perhaps become more widespread. It is happening on a much greater scale today and will likely continue. While I have never advocated nor endorsed vandalism, my original piece was an equivocation of why we should leave the fate of these monuments up to the communities where they exist. I no longer make that equivocation. I felt that the monuments were “safe” because they were a part of history. But as I stated 3 years ago, their fate will continue to be tied to their ongoing connection to White Supremacist, Ne0-Nazi, White Nationalist, Ku Klux Klan and related fringe movements. The most prominent groups dedicated to Southern History have failed miserably in distancing themselves from these ignorant buffoons and in that failure they are just as responsible for the destruction of the monuments as any of the current protesters and vandals. As the descendant of poor white farmers who fought for the Confederacy, I have no interest in continuing to elevate wealthy slave-owning officers to the god-like status given them by so-called Southern Partisans. They have never represented my background or life experience, nor the background or life experience of the vast majority of Southerners. It’s true that most of men who died for the Southern cause never owned slaves, but were pawns in an effort to preserve the wealth of men who did and had no interest in anyone’s rights but their own. As you’ll read below, even Robert E. Lee took offense to such memorializing.
As a white Southerner, I’ve known racists my entire life, but I’ve known many interested in Southern history who aren’t racists. Unfortunately, the longstanding conflation of “white” history movements with Confederate history has brought us to the present moment. I hear from people all the time that they’re sick of being labeled racists for being Southern, or for defending a Confederate monument; the way I see it, to get around that you need to call these racists out, loudly, and don’t equivocate. And parading around a few black members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans as a workaround to prove that you’re not what the rest of the world sees isn’t addressing the problem. When the world sees people surrounding a Confederate monument singing Russia is our friend (it is NOT) or angrily waving the flags of the Third Reich, Southern Heritage has already lost the battle. It’s not just that the media portrays it that way. It’s not caving to political correctness. It’s really there. It has to stop being okay for these people to attach themselves to the symbolism and iconography of the Confederacy if any of the historic reminders are to survive.
And it doesn’t help to say the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, or to dismiss it completely, as many apologists do. Taxation and states rights were in the mix, but the entire wealth of Southern states was dependent on the ownership of human beings. And yes, most monuments were erected at the height of the Jim Crow era. From the growth of the slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest’s original Klan in the years following the Civil War, to the rebirth of the Klan on Stone Mountain in 1915, there has been and remains a relationship between Confederate symbolism and racist ideologies.
One might be surprised by the words of Robert E. Lee regarding these monuments, but I tend to agree that removing physical totems does not erase history: As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated, my conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt … would have the effect of … continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour. (Letter to Thomas L. Rosser, 13 December 1866, via Lee Family Digital Archive). I’m not surprised that the descendants of the most prominent Confederate families have come out against the monuments in recent days, largely, I’m sure, as a result of long-term frustration with the racists who have co-opted them for more nefarious purposes.
I’ve worked at a state historic site devoted to the end of the Confederacy. I serve on the board of a museum based on a Southern town founded by Union veterans. I’ve spent 10 years photographing and documenting Confederate history alongside African-American history. I haven’t done this out of a need to be politically correct yet I have received angry messages from white and black Georgians on a variety of perceived slights, almost always related to racial issues. I haven’t conceded to either before and I’m not starting now. History is history but it won’t and shouldn’t survive in the public square as long as its defenders attach themselves (or make no effort to rid themselves of) radical racists.
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