After white supremacist Dylan Roof executed nine black people during a Bible study session at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, it was discovered that he had a website with links to Confederate sites and a photo of him holding a Confederate battle flag.
South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley (R) responded by calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from a flagpole on the state’s Capitol grounds. “We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer,” she said. “The fact that people are choosing to use it as a sign of hate is something we cannot stand.”
On June 23 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump weighed in on the topic by saying that the flag should be taken down and put in a museum. This was before Steve Bannon took charge of Trump’s election campaign.
On July 9 Gov. Haley signed legislation authorizing the removal of the flag and the following day a large crowd applauded as it was taken down.
Governor Haley’s success in getting the Confederate flag removed encouraged others across the U.S. to call for the removal of Confederate memorials in their communities, including people in states as far away as Arizona.
The growth and success of these local initiatives angered right-wing extremists. Earlier this year they responded to a decision by the Charlottesville, Virginia, city council to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a municipal park, by organizing a Unite the Right protest rally to be held in Charlottesville August 11-12.
The U.S. Department of Homeland (DHS) security notified local law enforcement officials on August 9 that the protest would likely result in violence. They warned that white supremacists and anti-fascist “Antifa” extremists had clashed twice before in Charlottesville over the removal of Lee’s statue, at a white nationalist rally on May 13 and a Ku Klux Klan gathering July 7.
On the night of the 11th a procession of far-right protesters that included white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, and right-wing militia members marched through the city’s University of Virginia campus. They chanted Nazi and white supremacist slogans while carrying lit tiki torches and briefly scuffled with counterprotestors before the state police broke it up.
Things got much worse at the next day’s protest. There were more protestors on both sides and the far-right protestors included people carrying Confederate flags and wearing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” caps and giving the Nazi salute while shouting, “Hail Trump!” The police failed to prevent violence from breaking out, a local state of emergency was declared, and the situation became deadly when a far-right protestor named James Alex Fields Jr. purposely drove a car into a crowd of counterprotestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others. (A police helicopter also crashed on route to scene, killing two state troopers.)
President Trump didn’t say anything publicly about the events in Charlottesville on the first night of the right-wing protest. But he responded to the second day’s violence by telling the country that he condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” His speech was widely criticized for failing to explicitly condemn white supremacists and Nazis, and his repetition of the phrase “many sides” created an inference that he put them on the same moral plane as the counterprotestors.
He responded to the criticism by defending himself in a speech on August 15 wherein he said that he’d already condemned neo-Nazis, but not all of the right-wing protestors in Charlotte had been neo-Nazis or white nationalists. “You also had some very fine people on both sides,” he said.
Trump also seemed to defend the right-wing protestors by sympathizing with their reason for organizing the march – the city’s plan to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee.
“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” he said. “So, this week, it’s Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
At a rally he held in Phoenix, Arizona, a week later he repeated this excuse, telling the crowd that, “They’re trying to take away our culture. They’re trying to take away our history.”
A subsequent national poll found that 54 percent of Americans agreed with Trump that Confederate monuments “should remain in all public spaces,” while 27 percent said they should be removed, and another 19 percent said they didn’t know. (Unfortunately, the poll failed to identify whether or not the respondents lived in former Confederate states.)
A closer look, however, shows that Trump’s argument isn’t based upon facts. For example, after the South was defeated in the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was against monuments to the Confederacy. When he was invited to the Gettysburg battlefield in 1869 to help place granite monuments to mark the positions that had been held by Confederate units during the battle, he declined. “It is wisest, morever,” he wrote, “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”
A comprehensive report, issued in 2016 by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) shows that many Confederate monuments aren’t really historical markers, but attempts by neo-Confederate groups, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy, to help promote the Lost Cause, a longstanding historical revisionism campaign designed to portray the Confederacy as a benign entity. Proponents of this myth claim that the old South had a superior culture and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery but about states’ rights. In other words, there was a moral equivalency to the causes for which the North and the South fought the war. The Confederacy just happened to have lost the war. Civil War historian Edward H. Bonekemper III has called the Lost Cause, “the most successful propaganda campaign in American history.”
I presume that some of the people who want Confederate monuments maintained simply feel that we shouldn’t be tampering with history. But in 1967 the United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN) changed the word nigger to Negro in 143 geographical place names. And after World War Two, the new German government outlawed the public use of Nazi symbols. Were those changes wrong?
I’m not saying that all Confederate monuments should be removed, just the ones that primarily serve to glorify the memory of the Confederacy. General Lee, in fact, advocated for just one type of Confederate memorial. “All I think that can now be done, is to aid our noble & generous women in their efforts to protect the graves & mark the last resting places of those who have fallen,” he wrote in 1866.
The graves of Confederate soldiers should, of course, be maintained. So should historically oriented Confederate monuments at Civil War battlefields. But even these concessions may have been frowned upon by most of the Union soldiers that survived the Civil War. In 1869 former Union soldier William T. Collins wrote an eloquent policy statement for distribution by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the largest Union Army veterans organization. His purpose was to explain why the GAR was opposed to allowing the graves of Confederate soldiers in public military cemeteries to be decorated on Memorial Day.
We strew flowers therefore on the graves of our comrades, and prevent their being strewn in the national cemeteries at the same time, on graves of such rebel dead as may be buried therein, not because we cherish any feelings of hate, or desire to triumph over individual foes, but because we seek to mark in this distinction and manner the feelings with which the nation regards freedom and slavery, loyalty and treason, Republican principles and those of a slave-holding oligarchy.
We are ready to forgive – we hold no malice – but we will never consent by public national tribute to obliterate the wide gulf that lies between the objects, motives, and principles for which we fought and our comrades died, and those for which the rebel armies banded together, and for which their dead now lie in numerous graves.
They were brave, and we know it – none can better appreciate that fact than those who fought against them. But mere courage never ennobled treason. It cannot turn slavery into liberty, nor make despotic intentions desirable and to-be-applauded virtues. Our refusal to decorate rebel graves marks not hatred of their occupants or friends, but our undying hostility to the ideas for which they fought and died. To do less than keep this distinction fresh in the national mind is to undermine the republic itself. – William T. Collins
I don’t propose that we should resume the practice of preventing the graves of Confederate soldiers from being decorated. But reconciliation must be based upon honesty, not the falsehoods embodied in the Lost Cause. What other country on Earth, I ask you, would allow memorials on public properties to a traitorous rebellion that cost the lives of more than 360,00 loyal soldiers, and wounded at least 280,000 more? A dare say none. The hundreds of Confederate monuments that exist today, especially those dedicated to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, are a testament to the effectiveness of the propaganda that promoted the historical revisionism of the Lost Cause.
The removal of monuments that glorify the Confederacy doesn’t create a slippery slope that endangers all of American history. It’s easy to tell the difference between a monument to the Confederacy from one that isn’t. Nor will their removal solve the daily problems of Americans, including the black people who still suffer in poverty due, in part, to the legacy of slavery. But sometimes there are more important things than money, and cultural symbols matter. The truth is that the removal of Confederate monuments from public places isn’t an attempt to “take away” our history, it’s a way to begin to dismantle the historical revisionism that led to their creation. It’s a way to restore the truth – something that Donald Trump often ignores when it’s convenient for him.
On June 4, 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report showing that more than 1,700 monuments, place names and other symbols honoring the Confederacy remain in public spaces.