It's Past Time to Remove Civic Artifacts Celebrating White Supremacists

Most Confederate artifacts were installed during the long backlash after the Reconstruction era in order for white supremacists to send an unmistakable message to emancipated slaves: we are still in charge.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted August 23, 2017 in Blog (Last Updated August 23, 2017)

With respect to the Confederate statues, monuments and flags that today's civil rights activists are demanding to be removed from esteemed American public spaces, we must acknowledge that there is, indeed, a widespread erasure of history connected to these artifacts.

Specifically, the statues and flags themselves are both a deliberate, targeted reaction to the civil rights movements that pushed for equality and justice; and the product of a revisionist false history that downplayed the central role of slavery in the conflict that led to the American Civil War.

As the Southern Poverty Law Center has carefully documented, the Confederate artifacts were installed in two clusters: the first decade of the 1900s, during the 'Jim Crow' era of retrenchment, segregation and disenfranchisement that followed Reconstruction; and again during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, in which the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act marked major milestones in the arduous and still-ongoing struggle to overturn that Jim Crow-era segregation.

Installation of Confederate monuments by year (Image Credit: Southern Poverty Law Center)
Installation of Confederate monuments by year (Image Credit: Southern Poverty Law Center)

By and large, these Confederate artifacts were installed explicitly as part of the long rearguard campaign against granting the full rights of citizenship to African-Americans. They were installed precisely because they are a celebration of the white supremacist leaders who fought a civil war against their own country to preserve the horror of slavery.

They were installed during the long backlash after the Reconstruction era in order for white supremacists to send an unmistakable message to emancipated slaves: we are still in charge.

In more recent decades, as it has become less acceptable to use overtly white supremacist language (at least until the past year or so), the right-wing narrative on the Civil War has shifted to the argument that it was fought over "states' rights" and southern pride, not slavery.

This is revisionist nonsense. If you are not sure what the Civil War was fought over, you need only read the words of Alexander H. Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, in the so-called "Cornerstone Speech" he delivered in Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1861. It is worth quoting at some length:

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the 'rock upon which the old Union would split.' He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact.

But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. ...

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. ...

Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. [emphasis added]

Anyone who tries to tell you that the Confederate flag and the statues to Confederate leaders are just non-racist symbols of southern culture is either sadly misinformed or else engaged in a malicious deceit in order to justify continued white supremacism.

These artifacts are not a neutral reflection of history, and removing them is by no means an erasure of that history. Rather, removing them is the first step in moving past the reprehensible practice of honouring and celebrating white supremacists, and thereby moving incrementally toward a public realm in which all people can enjoy the full rights and dignities to which everyone has an equal claim - despite the Confederate Constitution's morally repugnant insistence to the contrary.