Another Confederate monument came down on Thursday night in the town square of Decatur, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb.
The Lost Cause monument is the latest in a long list of monuments and statues that have come down in recent weeks following the police killing of George Floyd. These monuments have become flashpoints for protests over police brutality and racial injustice.
Among those that have come down is a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, in Frankfort, Kentucky; a statue honoring Confederate soldiers in Jacksonville, Florida; a monument for Confederate soldiers who died in a Union prison camp in Indiana; and in Fredericksburg, Virginia, an 800-pound slave auction block was removed.
This reckoning with the past that is happening across the country represents a revolution comparable to the civil rights movement, says Vernon Burton, professor of history at Clemson University.
“Good revolutions are both exhilarating and a time of weariness,” he says. “And it's also, I think, a really teachable moment about what both history is and how we commemorate history and how we learn our history.”
More people are coming to understand what historians have known all along — that these monuments represent much more than the Confederate leaders they depict, Burton says.
“There's a generation that was taught in the history books that these symbols mean something very respectful, something that they are to cherish as part of their heritage,” he says. “And I think we still have a long way to go in explaining that they also mean other things, that they were put up for specific purposes, not just of recognizing Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis as leaders but to make a statement about white supremacy.”
On what Confederate monuments signify
“When you look at a monument, the first thing you have to do is ask, is it a monument to Robert E. Lee or is it a monument that was put up for some other reason? And it's both usually. They were put up at a certain time to represent, in fact, white supremacy at a time in particular when Black people in the South were being denied their political rights.
“And it all ties together. What we're seeing, I think, though, is the result of years of teaching that have reached out now to public school teachers, and better history is being taught so that we can put these things much more into their proper context. In the American South, it's now a much more pluralistic society. It is a pluralistic society. But I think it's going to take a long time. These things can also have a backlash.
“We must, I think, also understand that, while seeing a Confederate statue at the courthouse, which are throughout the South — thousands of these monuments went up between 1890 and particularly 1910, 1920 in this Jim Crow period. Well, that may represent to one group of citizens, Confederate soldiers, their bravery and fighting. To another, it stood at the courthouse entrance, which said, 'You will not receive justice here,' to another group of citizens. So these things are very symbolic, and they mean different things to different people.”
“If you think back about it, the sort of propaganda starts with when Brown v. Board happened. Mississippi ... passed a law ... that said we have to teach Mississippi history. As a historian, I love that. But the reason was to preserve our way of life. And what was that way of life? It was segregation. It was, at best, having African Americans as second-class citizens, and we understand that now. And there's certainly been for the last 20 years in colleges, it's been understood, and I really think that the heroes — and they really are heroes — who teach in the public schools have done a tremendous job in changing the way our history has been taught so that people better understand what all these symbols mean.”
On those who argue that taking down these monuments goes too far
“We've always changed things — things change. But I think we have good models. We have good models where Baltimore and particularly New Orleans held public hearings to make decisions, to have their citizens make decisions. Remember when so many of these things went up, African Americans were not even at the political table. It's not until 1965 that you get the Voting Rights Act and then it's not until the 1970s you even begin to get African Americans elected to state legislatures.
“Most of these monuments, now not all, but most of them were put up by private organizations like United Daughters of the Confederacy on public land without the approval, really, of all the citizens. And then later, state legislatures, particularly those dominated by whites, many of them just all white at the time, take them over and pass laws like Heritage Act laws that say that it makes it very difficult to get these changes made. But I never thought I'd live to see the day when the John C. Calhoun statue would be removed in Charleston, South Carolina, but the mayor just announced [it]. That's pretty amazing when you think about it.”
On if military bases named after Confederate generals like Fort Bragg will be renamed
“I think you might want to consider keeping Fort Bragg, where I did my basic training, because he was such a bad general that it helped the Union win the Army even though he was a Confederate general, so there's a little bit of irony in renaming Fort Bragg.
“But I just don't know. Historians are not very good prophets, but I think eventually there will be change. We forget that the Civil War was about disunion, that the attack on Fort Sumter is like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, and that's how those in the Union really experienced it. We rewrote this history so that we don't remember that every single Confederate state had a regiment of whites who fought for the Union and that African Americans ran away from slavery and fought for the Union. And Lincoln said those African American soldiers made a huge difference in winning the war. So it was a much more divided society than the monuments we look at today on the landscape would tell us. In fact, these monuments were partly about creating a unity that was not there even during the Civil War among white Southerners, and that is part of the role that they have played is creating that unity. So I think we need to think about that as well.
“The other side, and it's rather sad, is it does mean something to many white Southerners that is different and that they cherish, and that they identify as part of their ethnicity. And particularly as times are changing so dramatically in this country and everywhere, from recessions to the pandemic, all of these things, I think, add into why this is a revolutionary moment when what was impossible becomes possible.”
This segment aired on June 19, 2020.