This month, by order of the Charlottesville, Va. City council, workers removed a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee of what had been Lee Park. Then there was a statue of General Stonewall Jackson from a nearby park that had been named for him. Also in line of sight was a statue of Meriweather Lewis and William Clark, who explored the newly acquired territory of Louisiana, and Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian who appears to be crouching beside them in a way some consider as subject. “I’m really glad it’s a boring morning,” said John Mason, professor of history at the University of Virginia, because “boring means nothing bad has happened. The ordinary of the occasion is good.
Although “only” 200 people showed up to watch, the occasion was anything but ordinary. City council’s initial plan to remove the statue of Lee sparked the “Unite the Right” rally, which included white supremacists and neo-Nazis with Tiki torches, in August 2017. The ensuing violence resulted in a boost to the movement to remove Confederate statues from Charlottesville. and across the country.
That it took four years to do so in Charlottesville should remind us that removing Confederate monuments remains a monumental challenge.
It should be noted that most of the statues and symbols have been removed by order of the government or by the protesters themselves following three disturbing events: the murder by Dylan Roof of nine worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charlotte, South Carolina, in 2015, the “Unite the Right Rally” in 2017, and the murder of George Floyd by the police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis in 2020.
Most important, and little known, is that in February 2021, some 2,100 Confederate symbols, including 704 monuments, had not been removed. In addition, the support of Americans – 41% of them were in favor of moving the statues from public places to museums, 31% of them wanted to keep them where they are but add plaques to provide context, and 16% of them did not wanted no change – may have peaked in the summer of 2020.
The arguments in favor of the referral are compelling. Confederate statues and symbols do not preserve American history. They twist the past by promoting the myth of the South’s “lost cause” and honoring the secessionists who waged war on the United States to preserve slavery and white supremacy, under the pretext that they were defending the rights of states. . Additionally, many Confederate monuments were erected in the 1890s and the first two decades of the 20th century (a time when segregation was codified as law in the southern states, the Ku Klux Klan was revived, taxes on vote and grandfather clauses prevented African Americans from voting, and lynchings occurred about every week). Confederate statues were often placed outside courthouses, possibly as a reminder to African Americans who hoped for a fair trial that they would get “white man justice.”
Despite Donald Trump’s apoplectic opposition, the US government has made a lot to eliminate Confederate symbols. In 2020, the Marine Corps and the Pentagon banned the Confederate flag from all events and installations. In January 2021, the House of Representatives and the Senate canceled President TrumpDonald Trump Former Surgeon General Says CDC Mask Guidelines “Premature” and “Bad” Biden Calls on Congress to Pass Voting Bills on Anniversary of Death John Lewis Cuba, Haiti pose major challenges for Florida Democrats MORE‘s vetoed and stripped the names of Confederate leaders from all military bases. A few weeks ago, the House voted 285-120 (with 67 Republicans in the majority) to remove from the United States Capitol Confederate statues and a bust of Roger Taney, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who drafted the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857 (in which he declared that black people were “by far inferiors that they had no rights that the white man was required to respect ”). The bill is now in the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.
Unfortunately, the recent action by Charlottesville City Council is an anomaly. With the exception of Virginia, the southern states and communities have responded slowly or not at all. True, in 2020, Mississippi removed the Confederate symbol from the state flag. But half of the legislative bodies in the South that have considered remove monuments have decided not to do so.
The momentum to remove Confederate statues and symbols has stalled.
Racial justice activists, rightly so, are concerned about protecting voting rights against restrictions – primarily targeting African Americans and Latinos – enacted by many Red State legislatures in 2021. And like the cover media coverage of Confederate symbols has declined, many Americans seem to have lost interest, as they so often do.
Shame on us. Confederate monuments are – or should be – an affront to all patriotic Americans. It is high time to repeal and replace them.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and their politics in the 19th century. “