In April, a news release from the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that during 2022, 48 Confederate symbols in the United States were removed, renamed or relocated from public spaces. Virginia led the list with 13 Confederate symbols removed from public spaces, Louisiana and North Carolina seven each, and New York and Texas five each.
After the murder of nine Black members at a church in Charleston, S.C. in June of 2015, the SPLC began tracking the monuments. As of the release in April, 482 Confederate symbols had been removed, renamed or relocated from public spaces. There are more than 2,600 Confederate symbols still in public spaces with 47 of those in 11 states pending removal, according to SPLC data.
In addition to the murders in Charleston, other incidents have provided further public momentum for reconsideration of the monuments. Two specific events were the Unite the Right white supremacist rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., and the killing of George Floyd during an arrest by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. The rally in Charlottesville turned violent and, perhaps more than any other event, fueled the debate over Confederate iconography. But criticism of the monuments began long ago and has been heard consistently, if less vocally. Frederick Douglass, born into slavery but later an important writer, newspaper publisher, and abolitionist, called them “monuments of folly” that only reinforced the Lost Cause meme. Douglass died in 1895.
The review of the data renews attention to what has become an often-heated debate regarding the symbols and monuments. The SPLC as well as other civil rights and human rights groups have worked to remove the symbols because of the racial implications of Confederate symbols in public spaces. They argue that the monuments treat as heroes those who led an insurrection against the United States.
Several heritage and historical groups have argued that the monuments were erected at a time when Civil War veterans were dying in large numbers and the intent was to honor their sacrifices. Yet historians have pointed out that many of the monuments were erected between 1890 and 1915, a period in which Blacks were subjected to increasing disenfranchisement and Jim Crow laws. In effect, some argue, white supremacy in the South was being reestablished, and the monuments had the effect of serving as a threat to Blacks. There is, no doubt, truth in both arguments.
Confederate names have been removed from many schools, streets and other public spaces. The federal government has mandated the changing of names of military bases named for Confederate leaders with a deadline of January 2024. Among the major installations being renamed are Fort Benning, near Columbus, Ga., and named for Henry L. Benning, a brigadier general; Fort Bragg in North Carolina, named for Braxton Bragg, a general; Fort Polk in Louisiana, named for Leonidas Polk, a general and Episcopal bishop; and Fort Hood in Texas, named for John Bell Hood, a general.
In late 2022, the United States Military Academy at West Point announced it would remove, rename or relocate items commemorating the Confederacy. The announcement followed a directive from the Department of Defense. Included in the items to be removed are a portrait of Robert E. Lee, dressed in Confederate uniform, and a stone bust. Before the Civil War, Lee served as superintendent of West Point.
The larger context of the debate involves what is referred to as contested memory. “There has been an effort to control the memory of the Civil War for over 150 years–from Reconstruction to the present day,” said William Ferris, professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina and associate director emeritus of the Center for the Study of the American South. “Taking these monuments down is long overdue. We need public monuments that speak to the entire nation—both Black and white. Those who fought in the Civil War on the Confederate side were part of an effort to destroy our nation.”
Ferris was a founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi where he was on the faculty for 18 years. “The monuments were erected in response to those who sought civil rights for Blacks, and they were a highly visible way to reinforce Jim Crow,” Ferris said. “To those who say the monuments represent ‘heritage,’ we should ask ‘whose heritage?’ They represent only the heritage of whites who sought to preserve slavery.”
The SPLC release in April reported that seven states–Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee– have enacted laws to block or make difficult the removal of Confederate monuments. Other states, including Texas, have engaged in difficult and often emotional debates in legislative forums about such laws. The law in Mississippi covers a range of war monuments beginning with the Revolutionary War and extending to Native American war statues and the Iraq war. The law allows for a memorial to be moved by a governing body “if it is determined that the location is more appropriate to displaying the monument.”
One of the higher-profile removals came in 2021 when a statue of Robert E. Lee and his horse, Traveller, was removed from public space in Charlottesville, Va. Also removed were a statue of Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general, and one of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The Lewis and Clark statue had long been a concern because of the positioning of Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman. She was depicted in a crouching position many viewed as subservient.
Lee statues have been removed in other cities, including Dallas, New Orleans, Richmond, Va., Austin, and Durham, N.C. In Dallas, the statue was a celebrated 1935 sculpture by Alexander Phimister Proctor and was on prominent display in a small park in the Oak Lawn area of the city. The statue was of Lee and a young soldier on horses.
Not Without Controversy
The removal of what had been a Dallas landmark was not without controversy. A Republican member of the Texas Legislature, Pat Fallon, in a Facebook post, wrote: “SHAME! The city of Dallas buckled & removed the beautiful Robert E. Lee statue from Lee Park (a renaming is sure to follow). The statue, dedicated in 1936 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, was removed in 2017 by cowards.” A renaming of the park did follow. It is now known as Turtle Creek Park. The statue was sold for $1.4 million and is on display at a golf resort in West Texas. In June of 2020, a 65-foot monument known as the Confederate War Memorial was removed from a location near the Dallas convention center and placed in storage.
Fallon, who since 2021 has been a member of Congress representing the 4th Congressional District in North Texas, hasn’t been alone in questioning the removal of Confederate monuments. Richard McCaslin is professor of history at the University of North Texas and has published extensively on Texas history and 19th Century military history. Among his books is a highly regarded biography of Robert E. Lee, “Lee in the Shadow of Washington.”
“I think taking down the statues is undemocratic,” McCaslin said in an interview. “There should be a referendum on each statue. These are public statues in public places. If people want to take them down, fine. But have a vote so people can decide.”
Polling on the removal of the monuments has been mixed. In a Quinnipiac University poll in 2020, 52% of those surveyed supported removing the monuments, and 44% were opposed. That was a change from 2017 when 50% opposed removing the monuments. The opinions are distinctly in line with political party preference; Democrats heavily support removal. As might be expected, some local polling has been more supportive of the monuments. A poll conducted by Elon University in 2021 found that 58% of North Carolina residents support leaving the monuments on government property while 42% support removal.
Lee has understandably become a lightning rod since he commanded all Confederate forces. The biographical characterizations of him are many and varied. He was a quiet, deeply religious, reluctant leader who never wanted secession and was forced into command because of his love of family and Virginia. He was a general who sent tens of thousands of men to their deaths in a savage war that from the outset likely was hopeless and that sought to continue slavery. He was a brilliant commander feared by Union soldiers who thought he had supernatural powers after the stunning early victories of the Army of Northern Virginia. He continued prosecuting a war that cost thousands of lives on both sides long after the ultimate outcome was determined. He worked for restoration of the Union after the war, even though he testified in Congress that Blacks should not be granted the right to vote.
All are correct. Lee was a complex man. In the 20th Century he became the focal point of a cult of hero worship that seemed to fuel the Lost Cause narrative and, later, association with white supremacy. To many, he took on godly characteristics as a representation of all that was good and wholesome in the South. But Lee was never that, and much of what came to be attributed to him in a positive light was simply fantasy. Lee had a secure place in history before the war as an engineering graduate of the United States Military Academy who created changes in the flow the Mississippi River to save the functioning of a river port at St. Louis, providing critical economic value to a developing nation in the middle of the 19th Century. And it’s fascinating that he cautioned against war monuments. He wrote that construction of war monuments hindered recovery, especially in the case of the South in its need to rebuild and move on from the Civil War.
One prominent statue of Lee that remains is in the national park at Gettysburg, Pa. It was the site of a major turning point in the Civil War when Lee made an incursion north, was defeated, and forced to retreat after a deadly battle over three days in July 1863. The statue depicts Lee on horseback and stands more than 40 feet tall. Several years ago, the National Park Service announced that the statue of Lee and other Confederate monuments would remain at Gettysburg. A page regarding Lee and slavery on the National Park Service website notes that, “While his views on race never changed much in his life, his views on slavery were complicated and occasionally contradictory.” Another National Park Service page on Lee and the Lost Cause explains how the memories of Lee have changed over the years and that the service “continues to interpret the history and evolving meaning of Robert E. Lee.”
Vandalism and lawlessness have marked a number of the protests on monuments. In 2020, a statue of Christopher Columbus in Richmond, Va., was torn down, burned, and thrown into a lake. A sign was placed on the foundation that read, “Columbus represents genocide.” In Boston, a statue of Columbus was beheaded. The city later removed the damaged statue. In Chicago, the statue of George Washington in Washington Park was vandalized with spray paint and had a white hood placed on its head. In late 2021, a statue of Thomas Jefferson, which had been in place for 187 years, was removed from New York City Hall. The city’s Public Design Commission voted unanimously to remove the statue because Jefferson was a slave owner.
In May of 2020, a Confederate monument installed in 1906 in a prominent place on the University of Mississippi campus was vandalized with the words “spiritual genocide” sprayed in black paint and with red handprints. The statue was used as a rallying point in 1962 during the race riots that protested the admission of the first Black student to Ole Miss. The Ole Miss administration, students, and faculty voted to remove the monument. The monument was moved in July of 2020 to a Civil War cemetery in a secluded part of the campus. The student who sparked the protests, James Meredith, is honored with a statue and portal that make up the Civil Rights Monument near the Lyceum. The monument was dedicated in 2006.
A broader perspective on Confederate monuments is expressed by Rick Halperin, a history professor and director of the Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He believes that moving the monuments from public spaces is justified. “But I’m not for destroying the monuments,” Halperin said. “They have a place in museums, on battlefields, and in cemeteries. It’s important for us as a people to recognize who we were and the views we held on slavery and race. The monuments can be a teaching tool. We can look back on them and recognize that we’re better than that now, and they’re a part of our history.”
Halperin is a respected international figure on human rights issues and for more than 50 years has been affiliated with Amnesty International USA. He said facing up to history is a necessary part of healing. He said that among modern nations, Germany has done the best job of dealing with its notorious past in the Nazi era and the Holocaust.
“Every country has had problems,” he said. “But to not face the past because it’s painful is morally bankrupt. Some states are not facing the past and it hinders their future. A real problem in this country is not teaching human rights and respect. Students should have that long before they get to a university.” SMU is one of nine universities in the United States that offers human rights as a major.
McCaslin of the University of North Texas notes with frustration a trend among some students not to engage opposing views intellectually. The shouting down of speakers on some university campuses has been widely reported. “There are some students who have an anti-intellectual mindset and just won’t hear anything they think isn’t productive or that they just don’t want to hear,” he said.
The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual survey in 2022 reported than less than half the people asked (47%) could name the three branches of government, a significant decline from the previous year. One can only imagine how ill-informed would be the discussion on constitutional separation of powers, an especially important subject these days. The Annenberg survey also showed an appalling lack of knowledge about the First Amendment.
Rethinking Monuments North and South
As he was spending a year in Cambridge, Mass., to write a book, W. Ralph Eubanks wrote a piece in The New Yorker, published in October 2021, comparing monuments he saw in Boston with those in his native Mississippi and the South. He noted there were many Civil War monuments in Boston celebrating the Union victory, yet they consistently did not recognize the contributions of Black Americans. Eubanks is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and author of “A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape.”
Nonetheless, Eubanks wrote that his father, a young Black man from Alabama who was in Boston in military service waiting to go to war in the 1940s, must have found some security in the monuments that celebrated his own freedom; for the first time in his life, his father was treated as a social equal to whites. “Perhaps that is why I don’t hate these monuments and don’t want to see them destroyed, as I do with memorials to the Lost Cause and the Confederacy,” Eubanks wrote.
Perhaps in the North and the South, we have not fully contemplated the meaning and the emotion of the monuments we’ve erected. Confederate monuments will continue to be relocated from public spaces. There will be resistance from legislative bodies and the public in some places in the South. The fact that there are more than 2,600 remaining in public spaces is a good indication that some will likely remain in place for years to come, very possibly permanently.
Those responsible for the putting up Confederate monuments no doubt feel their ancestors are being degraded in the debate and the removal from public spaces. The contested memory of the Civil War involves a contorted reasoning of the Lost Cause that the war was fought over states’ rights. The war was fought over slavery. And those whose ancestors were bought and sold in slavery have a judgment on Confederate monuments that no one else can make.
Tony Pederson is professor emeritus in journalism at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He formerly held The Belo Foundation Endowed Distinguished Chair in Journalism at SMU. Before that, he was executive editor and senior vice president of the Houston Chronicle.