On July 9, 1776, protesters approached the statue of King George III, sovereign of Great Britain and the 13 colonies. Shortly thereafter, the statue was no more, torn down by people who considered their king an oppressor. Two hundred and forty one years, one month and five days later, protesters in Durham, North Carolina, toppled another statue.
There is a history of toppling statues to oppression. But while people may agree with the toppling of one, they oppose the toppling of another. Why is there this fascination among some white southerners with a certain group of oppressors? Whereas there are no statues in the United States to King George, Lenin, Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein, we have many statues and monuments to Confederate generals and politicians — individuals who wanted to harm and destroy the United States and rebelled against the very principles of constitutional government. And, most importantly, these individuals perceived that because an individual looked different from them, they could own and subjugate that individual.
If anything, the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have highlighted something important. Not only are neo-Confederates involved in this struggle to protect monuments to their heritage (I use heritage here on purpose, because many protesters seem oblivious to accepted historical realities), but we witnessed neo-Nazis as well. I have to ask how any white southerner is willing to dishonor the 400,000 U.S. soldiers who perished obliterating a regime that killed 10 million people for racial, ethnic or religious reasons by associating with these types of organizations. That is not patriotism.
That said, I do agree that monuments to the treasonous Confederacy belong in museums as artifacts to a “Lost Cause.” These monuments have morphed over the past century as has the cause they represent. As the Mississippi Secession Declaration reminds: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” That’s just one of many contemporary statements connecting the Confederate States of America with slavery.
Confederate soldiers fought and defended their states’ right to have a government protecting an institution that kept a person, based on skin color, subjugated. With the defeat and surrender of the Confederacy, the Lost Cause emerged to defend a Confederate heritage. The statues they erected, including the one in Macon and the one in Charlottesville, were not symbols to reconciliation, but an insistence and revulsion against the new order imposed and were part of the larger struggle to maintain white supremacy in the southern states.
Loyal Union veterans vehemently opposed the erection of Confederate memorials on national battlefields. This resilience continued with the perverted use of the Confederate Naval Jack during the Civil Rights era to prevent integration. Confederate symbols, be they statues or flags, are a constant reminder that racism in the United States is alive and well, because that is from a historical perspective what Confederate heritage symbolizes.
However, I think the Confederate Soldier Monument is an artifact and deserves its museum contextualization, highlighting the anti-reconciliation atmosphere of the Lost Cause as well as an education about the symbolism of these monuments.
If that museum where this artifact and its contextualization takes place is indoor or outdoors should be a decision by the community, giving voice to all community members, especially those who have suffered under white supremacy for centuries. There is a significant need for education and listening; after all, President Barack Obama very powerfully has reminded us: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion.”
Niels Eichhorn is a professor at Middle Georgia State University.