By Ben Trefry
Sep 28, 2017
After Charlottesville, a previously little-known topic has risen to prominence in the nation’s news. At issue: The removal of Confederate monuments from the Civil War – memorials of war heroes who were technically enemies of the United States, and fought against the Union to keep slavery. The Confederate flag that some claim is a symbol of Southern pride is also used as an offensive hate symbol by modern white supremacists.
In general, removal or construction of statues is a local matter, decided on by local authorities and involving few outsiders. Towns all over the country, mainly in the South, have been slowly and quietly removing Confederate monuments for many years now, based on the opinions of locals and generating little controversy. But when the town of Charlottesville, Virginia decided to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, white supremacists from across the nation scheduled a Unite the Right rally for August 12. Converging on the normally quiet town streets, counter-protesters moved in as well.
In the ensuing chaos, many were injured and Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old counter protester demonstrating against the white supremacists, was killed when a white supremacist intentionally plowed his car into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators. People on both sides were beaten with sticks, while bystanders, rather than intervening, filmed the painful beatings on their smartphones.
President Trump initially refused to condemn white supremacists in a press conference, instead blaming “many sides” for the violence and chaos – which earned praise from prominent white supremacist leaders such as David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan. He also expressed his opposition to removal of Confederate monuments, saying that removing Confederate monuments could eventually lead to removing statues of leaders like George Washington. (For the slippery slope argument against removing statues, see the next section of the article for a more detailed explanation). He later delivered a strong, scripted condemnation of racist groups, but soon reverted back to his original message, refusing to acknowledge that the white supremacists were solely responsible for the violence.
In the wake of Charlottesville, dozens of other cities and towns have announced their plans to remove similar statues – the disaster served as more a motivator than a warning. In other towns, such as Durham, North Carolina, protesters have forcibly toppled the statues. Though some who were involved with the destruction of this statue were arrested, North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, called for the removal of all Confederate monuments residing on public property. “The racism and deadly violence in Charlottesville is unacceptable but there is a better way to remove these monuments #durham,” he wrote on Twitter soon after the statue came down.
Central to the arguments on both sides is the meaning of Confederate monuments. Those who advocate their removal claim that, since they represent a regime that fought a war over slavery, generals like Robert E. Lee were too racist to honor, and are offensive to African-Americans who use the public places where they stand – who would want to sit in a park with a statue of someone who fought to keep their great-grandfather a slave? Meanwhile, those on the other side believe that Confederate monuments are a valuable part of history that should not be erased, and that people on both sides of a conflict can be war heroes who deserve to be honored.
One fact that advocates strongly for the removal of confederate statues is that Confederate symbols have more or less been appropriated by white supremacist hate groups, much like Pepe the Frog, an initially harmless cartoon frog that was stolen from its creator to become a toxic hate symbol.
Confederate monuments, however, were never harmless, and many were put up in what appears to have been an act of racism. Most of the monuments in question were not placed until at least ten years after the Civil War’s conclusion, when the South, though it had lost the war, wanted its war heroes – and legacy of slavery – to live on. Some Northerners even supported this first round of statues as a reconciliation that allowed the South to maintain the freedom it deserved. According to a vox.com article, the placing of Confederate monuments coincided with significant racial events, such as the passage of Jim Crow laws, and the monuments were used used to promote unity of the white race as a political statement. So, though the people the statues represent could have been war heroes, the primary reason of putting up at least some of the statues seems to have been racism, rather than honor as many think. They are, however, still historical monuments that warrant some respect. In fact, racism is also an important historical and current issue that should not be swept into the corner.
On the other side, those who do not want Confederate monuments removed argue that they are historical symbols that have great value, and removing historical statues of people we do not like is never a good idea. In the opinion of Alfred Brophy, legal scholar writing for the Washington Post, removing Confederate monuments would “quite literally, erase an unsavory — but important — part of our nation’s history.”
That history is important because the reasons for the Civil War may be more nuanced than they are made out to be. Most people know that one of the main reasons for the South’s secession was the possibility of losing slavery’s legality, but significantly fewer recognize that the Confederacy actually rejected an offer from President Lincoln to rejoin the United States in exchange for making slavery permanent – exactly what the South supposedly wanted all along – so there were clearly other reasons for the secession.
Another reason that it may not be wise to get rid of Confederate monuments is that the practice could start a larger trend of removing other historical statues based on the subject’s ideas, whether or not they are associated with a cause such as the Confederacy. On this subject, President Trump tweeted, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments….Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!”
This is called the ‘slippery slope’, which basically means that removing some statues could set a precedent for removing others that are progressively less offensive and racist, until no historical figure, no matter how heroic and worthy, is off limits. ‘If we remove a statue of Confederate generals,’ the argument goes, ‘why can’t we also remove a statue of George Washington, because, after all, wasn’t he a racist slave owner?’ This is a fringe view, however, and it’s unlikely that a plan to remove a statue of our first president would get much public support in the recent future; there is no comparison between a Confederate statue, put up as an act of racism during the Jim Crow era, and a statue of George Washington, put up because he was our first president.
A survey by msn.com showed a deep partisan divide over Confederate monuments: 89% of Republicans opposed the removal of Confederate monuments, while only 29% of Democrats took that position. However, most people from both parties agreed that protesters should not be allowed to carry guns while they march, as the white supremacists in Charlottesville did. Many Republican senators disagreed with President Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacist groups, but his strong position against the removal of Confederate statues was much less toxic territory – it’s quite possible that the public as a whole agrees with him. According to an NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist University poll, conducted after the Charlottesville violence, 62% of respondents said that Confederate statues should stay as historical symbols. Other polls have shown that a majority support their removal, though, so the results are quite ambiguous. By comparison, 86% of Americans disagree with the ideas of the white supremacist movement that serves as the main protectors of confederate monuments.
With the help of Mr. Godoy, The Tiger Tribune performed a survey at LVHS to see how students felt about the removal of Confederate monuments. The results were inconclusive – while a plurality (44%) felt that Confederate monuments in town squares and important locations should go, a full 22% said that they were unsure, and the remaining 33% said that the statues deserve to stay. “If a confederate statue is the center of a town, it should be voted on whether it will still stand there or if it should be brought down because then everybody would have a say in things,” said one respondent who believes that statues in public places should be relocated.
Another respondent, who strongly advocated for the removal of these statues, took a more definite position. “Why would anyone want to honor the people who fought against our nation and for enslaving human beings? We really should be honoring national heroes like Abraham Lincoln or Harriet Tubman, who aren’t racist and have positive significance to our nation’s history.”
Not a single student respondent agreed with President Trump’s response to Charlottesville, with most (76%) saying it was either ‘Horrible’ or ‘Not the right response’, and a few (24%) choosing ‘Neutral’. (See charts below).
According to a 2016 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), there are 718 known Confederate statues in the United States, of which almost 300 are in Georgia, Virginia, or North Carolina. Interestingly, there are no less than 109 public schools that are named for Confederate icons such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, as well as 10 military bases that have Confederate names.
Whether schools named for Confederate heroes count as monuments is difficult to determine, but there have been calls to rename many of these schools and remove any remaining Confederate flags that may fly on the grounds. Some have already done this, such as a high school in Jacksonville, Florida, which was named after Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who was also the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The majority of students were African-American, so the change made sense to the community. But in other places, changes have not gone so smoothly. At the Douglas L. Freeman high school near Richmond, Virginia, over 1,200 students and alumni signed a petition to revive the historic Rebel mascot for sports events. In areas such as this, plans to change names have faced harsh opposition, but have been mainly under the radar with respect to the mainstream media.
As of now, the renaming and removal of Confederate monuments has been a controversial topic over which the public is split pretty evenly, but consistently along partisan lines. It will be interesting to see how the discussion evolves in the future, given that movements such as this typically gain energy in bursts that coincide with notable events. With proposals to remove statues just reaching city halls in the wake of Charlottesville, look for more cities announcing plans to remove Confederate monuments – and possibly more high-intensity protests.