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PERSPECTIVE: It’s Time to Relegate Confederate Symbols to the Past

Created: 12 June, 2020
Updated: 26 July, 2022
10 min read

Arturo Castañares

Venerating the symbols, statues, leaders, and flag of the Confederate States of America has no place in our society now more than 155 years after the end of the war that nearly torn our country apart.

The debate on whether to protect or remove statues of Confederate leaders or their names on countless schools, streets, and even US military bases has raged on for years but has again become a hot topic in the wake of another round of protests about racial bias in America.

Some of the protests have included demands for the removal of Confederate statues and monuments in public parks and capitals around the South. Several statues have been vandalized and a few have even been pulled down by protesters over the past few weeks.

Critics argue that celebrating the people and ideology of the Confederacy exalts the “Lost Cause” narrative that the war between states was fought for noble causes of freedom and culture when, in fact, it was waged over the singular issue of slavery.

All of the eleven states that chose to succeed from the Union publicly declared that slavery and the threat of Abraham Lincoln and others to abolish forced servitude of humans posed an existential threat to their economic survival, and was clearly the cause of their decisions to form a new country comprised entirely of slave-holding states.

After a four-year war that saw more than 750,000 soldiers killed – including some relatives that fought on opposite sides – the country tried to heal the deep wounds that devastated the South and left the North nearly bankrupt.

In the years immediately after the war, even General Robert E. Lee, leader of the Confederate Army, argued against erecting monuments to the South in hopes of uniting the country when he said “Remember, we are all one country now. Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring them up to be Americans.” For several years, not much was done to honor or celebrate the side that lost the war that some Southerners still call the “War of Northern Aggression.”

It was more than 30 years after the war that the Daughter and Sons of the Confederacy were created in 1894 and 1896, respectively, with the aim being “the commemoration of Confederate States Army soldiers and the funding of the erection of memorials to these men.”

The move to celebrate the Confederacy came as Southern states were enacting laws to marginalize African-Americans after many had begun to prosper during the post-war Reconstruction era.

By the 1890s, 10 of the 11 former Confederate states had passed segregation laws, poll taxes, and voting literacy and residency tests that disenfranchised blacks. The policies were called Jim Crow laws, which drew the name from a caricature of uneducated blacks played by white actors in minstrel shows that were popular in that day.

In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate by equal” facilities, including schools, bathrooms, housing, and hospitals, were legal. That landmark decision legalized segregation and institutionalized racism in America.

Many of the Confederate statues, monuments, and schools and streets named after rebel Generals appeared during the late 1800s and early 1900s, then the pace slowed considerably.

Between World Wars I and II, several military camps in the South were enlarged and some turned into full bases, and ten of them were named after Confederate soldiers, including well-known facilities like Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Benning in Georgia, and Fort Hood in Texas.

Then in the 1950s when the civil rights struggles began to gain momentum in the South after Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat and public protests began to spread, additional Confederate monuments began to appear as a way to intimidate African-Americans.

The largest monument to the Confederacy was initiated after the 1953 Brown v Board of Education case desegregated schools. Purchased by the State of Georgia and opened on April 14, 1965, on the exact 100th Anniversary of the assassination Abraham Lincoln (a macabre trophy), Stone Mountain is still Georgia’s most popular attraction.

Stone Mountain is a quartz boulder over 800 feet tall and about five miles around at its base, and has an engraved depiction on one side of three famous Confederate principals on horseback; President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee, and General Stonewall Jackson. The relief carving takes up more than one and a half acres on the side of the mountain. The site now has a scenic train, gondola ride to the top, and a recreated plantation complete with three mintage mansions, slaves’ houses, and fields.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. mentioned the site in his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech when he said, “let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!” Today, Georgia still has over 170 Confederate monuments in public spaces throughout the state.

Even the bridge in Selma, Alabama, where Martin Luther King, Jr. led a peaceful civil rights march in 1965 that was met with police violence was named for a Confederate Brigadier General. After the Civil War, Edmund W. Pettus later served as the leader of the Alabama KKK and a US Congressman, but in 1940, the state named the new bridge over the Alabama River for him.

Although the debate over iconic Confederate symbols has flared up before, the timing of today’s protests come at a flashpoint in our society that seems like the appropriate moment to turn the page in our history.

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought attention to the plight of black Americans for several years since the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012.

Protests after subsequent deaths of African-Americans by police have grown in numbers and intensity as more people of all colors have embraced the call for racial equality, social justice, and criminal justice reform.

And Colin Kaepernick’s silent kneeling during the National Anthem in 2016 to protest the country’s treatment of blacks ignited a debate that inspired others but infuriated some, including the President.

But last month, a watershed event took place that could change our view of the timeline of our American history.

A 90-year-old woman who died in North Carolina on May 31st was the last living child of a veteran of the Civil War. Her father, who was 84 when she was born in 1930, died in 1938.

There are now no living veterans, spouses, or sons and daughters of anyone who fought in the Civil War, on either side. That war has now moved from our past and into our history.

Similarly, we should now move past commemorating both sides of the Civil War as equals even though both are ingredients of the American experience.

In the past two weeks, several separate but related issues have given us opportunities to re-examine how we handle the issue of the Confederacy and could help us better chart our future.

HBO announced that it was pulling its movie ‘Gone with the Wind’ until the company decides how it will handle the controversial film going forward. Although one of the most famous movies ever, the 1939 classic romanticized Southern culture in a light that sanitized the issue of slavery and reinforced negative stereotypes of blacks. The company said it will most likely re-release the movie with a public notice explaining that it was produced in a different time when common stereotypes of the era were reflected in cinema. Not doing so, HBO says, would be irresponsible in today’s world.

This week, after the only black driver in NASCAR racing, Bubba Wallace, said he thought the race circuit should ban Confederate flags at its races, NASCAR announced that it was doing exactly that. Even the most popular sport in the South has recognized the polarizing effects of the flag.

The US Marine Corps and the US Navy both announced they would now ban the display of the Confederate flag in all workplaces, common-access areas, and public spaces, and the Defense Secretary said this week he is open to holding discussions on renaming nearly a dozen military bases named after Confederate generals. President Trump responded that he “will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations“, failing to separate the legacy of the troops from the stigma of the facilities’ namesakes.

The country music group ‘Lady Antebellum’ announced it will rename the band ‘Lady A’ after reflecting on the connotations of the word that has come to reflect the attitudes of the South before the Civil War, including that of slavery. The all-white band members agreed it was the right move for them.

And Virginia Governor Ralph Northman announced last week that his state would remove a huge statue of Robert E. Lee from downtown Richmond, the former capital city of the Confederacy. Lee’s 14-foot statue atop a 50-foot base was erected in 1890. It is one of ten statues of Confederate leaders that line Monument Avenue, but the street has no statues of US Presidents or Generals.

Predictably, conservative voices have fought to defend the Confederate monuments as tributes to Southern culture and pride, as expressions of free speech, and as important reminders of our history.

But our history can be memorialized and taught more responsibly by treating the Civil War for what it truly was: a rebellion of states that bore arms against the United States in defense of an institution that enslaved millions of people and, thankfully, no longer even exists in the free world.

The Generals that served in the Confederacy, including Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Bragg, Benning, Hood, Beauregard, and even their President Jefferson Davis, had all served in the US Army before the war, and had sworn an oath to “bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States.

By all definitions then it was treason, but President Andrew Johnson granted pardons to all former Confederate soldiers and leaders in hopes of repairing the damage done by the war. In the end, they were all still Americans. Although the wounds have healed, scars still remain.

Before the Civil War, America was commonly referred to as “these” United States, and most people used the plural words “they”, “them”, “their”, and “are” to refer to the confederation of separate states. After the war, the usage turned into “the” United States and we now use the singular terms “it”, “its”, and “is” when referring to the country under a more centralized federal government.

The United States should be just that. United. Not divided. We should fly only one flag.

If people were upset at Colin Kaepernick for kneeling silently during the National Anthem and thought he was disrespecting the US flag and our military, then how can anyone support flying the rebel flag of the Confederacy that fought the US?

And if the Confederate flag is a protest or a symbol of Southern pride, what exactly is the message? That the South should have won? That slavery shouldn’t have been abolished? That we aren’t really one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all?

The myth and mystique of the “Southern culture” are too often used to sugarcoat a troubling past with impacts that still resonate with many today, especially black descendants of slaves. For them, the “culture” of the South saw millions of their ancestors used and sold as chattel, denied rights, and fought a war to perpetuate those ideals. For many, honoring that history dishonors their own.

It’s time to write a new chapter in the evolving history of our country: One of equality, unity, and common purpose.

Special thanks to Steve Helber/Associated Press for photo of Bubba Wallace.