Today, 18 July 2017, Confederate monuments are being vandalized at the most rapid rate in their history. I’ve woken up almost daily to read of new mischief regarding these embattled Southern icons. Anyone destroying public property should be dealt with accordingly by the courts, plain and simple. It’s all happening so fast, I can’t even keep up. First, I want you all to know that they won’t be removed from these pages. They are safe here because they’re history. But what is not safe or welcome here are comments from those who identify with or defend White Supremacist, Neo-Nazi, White Nationalist, Ku Klux Klan, and related fringe movements.
As a Southerner, I’ve known racists my entire life, of course, but I know there are many more well-meaning people who are not of that ilk who simply revere the history of the region and their ancestors. Unfortunately, for too many years there has been a conflation of “white” history movements with Confederate history and a lukewarm attempt, at best, by heritage groups to distance themselves from it. I see the Sons of Confederate Veterans loudly denouncing racist movements on their website but also blaming other protesters. Everyone knows that when both sides come ready for war they both have some blame. But making it about that takes just enough of the spotlight away from the racists to embolden them, ensuring a perpetual nazi-Confederate connection to the outside world.
And it doesn’t help to say the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, or to dismiss it completely, as many 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. There’s no way to avoid the fact that slavery and the terror-filled lynching campaigns of the Jim Crow era were wrong and it provided an easy “in” for the fringe elements. And this isn’t a recent phenomenon. From the birth of the 20th-century Klan on Stone Mountain in 1915 until today, there has been a relationship between Confederate symbolism and racist ideologies.
Ironically, the recent “coming to light” of these pathetic elements has precipitated a hysteria that threatens the existence of these monuments more than any perceived political correctness or political view has ever done. I hear from everyone that they’re sick of being labeled a racist 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. When the world sees people surrounding a Confederate monument singing Russia is our friend or angrily waving the flags of the Third Reich, what else will they think? It’s not just that the media portrays it that way. It’s really there. Of course I like to think that if any of these lunatics showed up at a re-enactment of legitimate historical value they’d be nicely asked to leave or risk getting their asses kicked. But it has to stop being okay for these people to attach themselves to the symbolism and iconography of the Confederacy.
If communities legitimately decide to remove monuments, that, too, is their business. I personally believe it should be put to votes locally when the issue warrants it; state laws can’t prevent vandalism. And if communities choose to remove a monument, it’s their call. But there is no way to tell Georgia’s story without paralleling Confederate history. And that’s why I document not only monuments but homes, battlefields, cemeteries, and more. I’m sure it will displease people on both sides of the spectrum.
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. But again, they are on this website because they are history and part of the physical landscape I document.
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 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 we don’t need the help or representation of those who don’t understand, nor care for it.