The Confederacy

I promised in my last post to commit the next one to a discussion of Confederate monuments and memorials, the more general practice of naming public buildings and infrastructure after Confederate leaders, and the current movement to rename, remove, or relocate them from their prominent positions in the built environment across the US South. This is, I think, easier said than done, for several reasons, and I am of two minds on the question of what should be removed and how it should be done. This is not to say that I am opposed to the removal or relocation of monuments to Confederate leaders, Confederate soldiers, and the Confederacy more broadly. A reasoned argument for this can be made relying on a critical historical sensibility and desire to understand and use the landscape as a tapestry of real historical processes and possibilities. On the other hand, arguments in favor of keeping such monuments in place that build from or advance apologias for the Confederacy, sympathetic to and rooted in more crude forms of racism or trafficking in nostalgia for a romanticized ‘Lost Cause’ of states’ rights and racialized social hierarchy, should be rejected as both incongruous with modern sensibilities and hostile to the project of building a more just national society. In other words, I am going to argue that perhaps it might not be the worst thing to keep some Confederate monuments and memorials in place, given proper contextualization and reworking. The landscapes and built environments in which these memorials are located are, after all, dynamic and changeable. I will provide an extended example before returning to the central question of what should be done with these monuments.

Note first I am not talking here specifically about the Confederate battle flag, the “Stars and Bars” that one sees on all kinds of objects and which is intimately tied to debates about Confederate monuments, ‘heritage’, and social memory in the South and the US as a whole. Since summer 2015, it is no longer to be found (officially) at NASCAR tracks or on NASCAR racing cars and merchandise, a move that was not necessarily popular with many racing fans. Around the same time, July 2015, the state of South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from the flagpole in front of the state capitol building and off the capitol grounds entirely. There is a reason the flag issue came to a head at the time – the racially motivated murder of nine people, all African-American, at a church in Charleston, South Carolina by a white supremacist hoping to trigger a “race war” and proudly displaying the Confederate battle flag on many of his personal belongings (along with flags from apartheid-era South Africa and Southern Rhodesia). This was the final, violent end of official display of the Confederate flag in South Carolina.

But this example of the battle flag and the South Carolina capitol is illustrative of my larger point. I had the chance to visit Columbia, South Carolina in fall 2006, and one of our stops was the capitol grounds, where, at the time, the Confederate flag still stood in front of the building next to the Confederate Monument, though from 1962 to 2000, the flag had been atop the capitol along with the US national and South Carolina state flags. What we should consider in examining the significance of this flag, its meaning for those viewing it, and its purpose in this particular location is not simply whether it is right or wrong to have the flag displayed there, or at all. That is a simple question, of course, but in answering it we must ask and answer a series of other questions. The symbolic elements built into the landscape — flags, statues, plaques, buildings, prominent names and other representations of people, events, or ideals — as well as their configuration as part of the whole, advance a larger narrative about the people who built it, why they built it that way and not some other way, and what we must do with these elements of the landscape that memorialize, commemorate, and celebrate the past in ways that posterity may find strange, unintelligible, or even offensive. How can and does the past speak to us through these monuments? What are these landscapes for, and for whom do they speak? In removing or altering them, what do we gain and what do we lose by way of historical understanding and social memory?

Perhaps this appears as cowardly equivocation in the face of a hateful, malevolent symbol whose purpose then was to lead Confederate soldiers in battle in support of slavery, and support of which now is typically used to whitewash a violent, shameful history without honestly confronting the legacy of slavery and segregation. In fact as the Washington Post recently reminded its readers, the flag itself largely disappeared for several decades after the Civil War, making its grand reappearance in the South and beyond in the 1950s and 1960s, in mocking and degrading response to the challenges posed and victories won by the civil rights movement. So if we tear out flags, statues, obelisks, and other reminders of the Confederacy’s historical presence, many of which remain prominent in centrally important and highly visible public locations, with what do we replace them, if anything? Does their removal mean also the removal of the stain of slavery and its defense from American and Southern history, or the end of Confederate nostalgia and paeans to ‘heritage’ that barely mask overt racism and white supremacy? The answer must be no, these will not be removed or brought to an end, even if every single statue of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were melted down. But I also do not want to insinuate that removing these would make the ideology of white supremacy all the more appealing, as if a crude psychological determination about the consequences of monument removal should be our guide here. This is above all a political question about the nature of what stories we tell about ourselves as a society and in our public spaces. And those stories can be complicated indeed, as I noted in my tour around the South Carolina capitol grounds.

Directly in front of the capitol, as you approach the building’s main entrance, stands a statue commemorating the Confederate war dead. When I was there in 2006, the Confederate battle flag still waved just behind on a tall flagpole. The placement is important – visitors to the state legislature and traffic along the major roads in front of the building would see prominently displayed at the heart of state power in South Carolina a memorial to those Confederate soldiers who fought and died alongside the battle flag in the Civil War. While various other smaller monuments to military and political leaders can be found around the state house, the Confederate Monument has place of pride directly in front. Yet on the east side of the building is another large monument, comprised of two sloping curved walls and a central obelisk. On the walls are multiple scenes depicting the African-American experience in South Carolina from the beginning of colonial settlement and the forced migration of African slaves, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, through the era of segregation and the civil rights movement. The obelisk’s base contains stones from four different regions of Africa, the origins of those slaves forcibly brought to South Carolina as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that persisted into the early 19th century. The monument, dedicated in 2001, is the first of its kind on any state capitol grounds in the United States, though it appears a group is raising funds for a similar effort in Texas. Here then, just a couple minutes’ walk from the Confederate Monument (again, the flag was removed to a museum in July 2015, but the statue remains) and unmissable going to and from the building’s east entrance, is a different story of South Carolina, one defined by a painful past of slavery and violence leading to a heroic struggle for equal rights and opportunity and full inclusion of African-Americans in the society and the place they helped to build.

To the south of the building stands yet another large statue, this one of Strom Thurmond, facing a set of office buildings housing legislators and other state employees and erected in 1999. Thurmond was a towering figure in 20th century South Carolina politics, serving as senator for 46 years, and before that as governor. He gained a national name for himself as a staunch defender of racial segregation in the civil rights era, and this was the basis for his presidential run in 1948, in opposition to then-President Harry Truman’s early moves toward desegregation following World War II. Thurmond didn’t become president, but he did win a few dozen electoral votes across the South, and helped foment a split in the Democratic Party around the issue of civil rights that over the next generation lead many Southern Democrats to defect from the party as it shed its Reconstruction-era ideas on race and segregation and moved toward support for expanding and protecting the civil rights of African-Americans. Thurmond staked his claim to the segregationist mantle in 1948 though, when he stated on the campaign trail “there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” He famously filibustered for 24 straight hours to kill an early civil rights bill in the Senate in the 1950s, and switched parties to become a Republican, part of the leading edge of Southern whites to abandon the Democrats and join the Republican Party of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, after President Lyndon Johnson (also a Southern Democrat) signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Though he shed his strict segregationist stance in the face of changing political and social conditions in the 1960s and 1970s, Thurmond’s statements and actions during the first half of his career in support of racial segregation lingered. But then Thurmond was a complex figure as well, made more so when, shortly after he passed away in 2003, his African-American daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams stepped forward to publicly reveal that Thurmond was her father, and had supported her in secret (well, things like this are somewhat of an open secret among those closest to the people involved) her entire life. Her mother was an African-American woman who had worked in the Thurmond family’s South Carolina home in his 20s. Thus, the Thurmond statue stands as a changed monument; the carving on the granite listing his surviving children, numbering four, had to be altered after his death. You can clearly see where the number ‘four’ had to be covered and rechiseled so that it can read ‘five’, and Essie Mae’s name has been added at the bottom. What does this official monument to a virulent defender of racial hierarchy and segregation mean now that it had to be altered to include a carved-in-stone reminder that segregation was not, and could never be, absolute and complete, that the political figures we look to as emblems and embodiments of our ideals and evils are themselves mortals with secrets left to tell? Joseph Crespino, professor of history at Emory University, provides an excellent dissection of the Thurmond monument and its transformation, arguing “the stone bears what is, in effect, a scar, the significance of which depends on whose gaze the scar holds.” This scar on the monument itself is quite real, where the old carving had to be replaced with new lettering and changes to the monument’s physical face are visible in discoloration of the stone and the lingering shadow of the word ‘four’ under the newly carved ‘five’. Of this scar, Crespino writes:

Yet in all times and places a scar connotes violence. It is as a marker of both the literal and figurative violence that white Americans have carried out against fellow Americans of African descent that Strom Thurmond’s scarred stone seems most profoundly suggestive.

Is there a point in the near or distant future when we might look at Thurmond’s statue and decide that it no longer bears any resemblance to a past to which we might reasonably connect and in which we see ourselves reflected in some way? This is, I think, the central question we should think about in debating the removal of any Confederate monument or memorial. I will address two final aspects of this before drawing to a close: first, the more general issue of naming things after Confederate leaders, and second, the issue of what these memorials should and could be in a re-envisioned public space.

First, renaming streets, schools, parks, and other multi-use public spaces and buildings is, I think, a somewhat different question than monument removal. Names often change, as they must. A public school or road named for Robert E. Lee (in Phoenix, no less) or a park named for Stonewall Jackson sends a different signal to the public than does a statue that can be contextualized and re-presented. A park or a public school cannot be moved though, not in the same way as a statue, nor can they be contextualized in a different way without addressing the name. You can tell the world on a plaque that Stonewall Jackson was a virulent racist and supporter of slavery, but that school or park is still bearing his name. This can be a slippery slope – do we change the names of all things bearing the names Jefferson and Washington in the US, as they too were slave owners in their time? To reiterate, relativistic equivocation provides no useful moral or political guide here, but we also must try to avoid the trap of amnesia, and accept the full contradictory complexity of place and history. But then, most communities in the US wouldn’t name a school after Benedict Arnold either, despite the fact that, before he conspired to surrender West Point to the British in the American Revolution, he was a decorated hero of multiple battles in the fight for independence (though there is at least one monument that celebrates his military achievements without naming him). There is a limit to what we should or can accept as reflective of ourselves in these public memorials and monument. Drawing these lines is difficult, and requires a more far-reaching discussion about what we want to know of our past, and how we want to tell the multiple stories of the places we inhabit.

So if Confederate memorials and monuments are not to be removed, then under what conditions should they remain? As geographer Derek Alderman noted in a recent twitter post on the potential renaming of Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Tampa, Florida, the debate over the Confederacy’s legacy in Southern landscape is part of a “struggle for public memory and space.” Removing monuments such as large statues or historical plaques and other markers, is one way of waging this struggle. It does not necessarily mean the expansion of public space and memory to those heretofore erased from those spaces and histories, and I am not convinced that full-on removal of monuments and memorials is either sufficient or necessary to ensure this. Indeed, many of these monuments and memorials date to the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, long after the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War, and during a period when a white, urban bourgeoisie began to assert its political, economic, and social dominance over what many call the “New South,” and within the larger national context. Latching onto the fading but still potent memories of the Confederacy and romanticized notions of the Old South gave this group some legitimacy and a sense of historical duty and continuity as they struggled to build and maintain a violent and oppressive social order based on class domination and racial segregation. The monuments and memorials that today are under threat of removal are, in one sense, less reminders of the Old South and the Confederacy than they are memorials to the New South urban elite who built them, and wished to extend and expand their social legitimacy through idealized and sanitized portrayals of their antecedents. The debate over whether to remove these monuments and memorials must be, I think, context-specific — which memorial, removed to where, and replaced by what — and just as importantly, accompanied by questions of how to complicate and re-create their function in the landscape by robust discussion over what this history means and how to present it in all its complexity, ugliness, and significance. Maybe melting down that statue of Robert E. Lee is a good move, or removing that bust of Stonewall Jackson to a museum, or taking down stone by stone that obelisk commemorating Jefferson Davis. It depends on where it is, how it is presented, and what else is said about it in its physical context.

On this point then, we might take a cue from the South Carolina capitol monuments, where the Confederate flag has been removed but the statue commemorating those who lost their lives in service to the Confederacy remains, although its singular embodiment of South Carolina’s history is challenged by the more recent addition of the African-African monument nearby. The Strom Thurmond monument, meanwhile, bears the scars, as Crespino explains, of decades of white supremacy and of the contemporary difficulty of reckoning with the pain that centuries of slavery and segregation has produced. Or we might look to the University of Virginia, a historic campus that, like so many other American universities built prior to emancipation, was built in part by slave labor. At UVA, there is a special “President’s Commission on Slavery and the University” and plans to construct a monument to commemorate those slaves who built and maintained the campus. This kind of work renegotiates our relationship to the past as represented in those monuments, and adds to them people and movements that were previously not visible in the landscape, even if their work always was. This does not erase the wrongs that past generations committed and endured, but it does allow us to grapple more fully with that history and to present a more nuanced picture of ourselves today in connection to that.

Whether to remove a Confederate monument is therefore a more contentious question than it otherwise seems, and these decisions about the use of public space should be made after robust democratic deliberation. It would be difficult to tell a group of African-American neighbors that although you know the daily sight of a massive statue of Stonewall Jackson is a constant reminder of white supremacy and its long shadow, and that the statue’s persistence lets them know that this history remains at the center of how we see ourselves and this place, they should agree to let it remain, but add some explanatory plaques or another monument that also embodies their history. This seems small consolation, and reproduces the incorrect notion that somehow these historical experiences are separate, and I could fully understand the desire to remove those markers of a painful past that represent a narrow relationship to social memory and public space from which they and their community have often been excluded. But again, I don’t think removing those memorials and monuments necessarily undoes or sufficiently counters that history and that exclusion. Yet when such statues become rallying points for hate and white supremacy, then the value of their removal or reworking becomes all the more important. As I said above, any defense of these monuments that casts them as simple markers of “heritage” must be rejected. These arguments refuse to confront that this heritage is not just a matter of presence in place over a few generations, but a matter of places made through the exercise and institutionalization of white supremacy, and thus racial oppression and injustice. This is part of American history but is inconsistent with (professed) modern American values and human rights, and should not be unequivocally celebrated but instead presented in its full historical complexity, significance, and ugliness, or not at all.

I have written about this before in fact, in the very first piece I ever published in a peer-reviewed academic journal. That article examined the history of and contemporary developments at Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park, where an enormous relief of Lee, Jackson, and Davis has been carved into a huge rock outcropping outside Atlanta. While this monument to the Old South and the Lost Cause was begun in the early 20th century precisely by the New South white elite as described above (and was the site chosen by the reborn Ku Klux Klan to signal their re-emergence as a force of racial violence around the same time), its completion by Southern politicians wishing to counter the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Today Stone Mountain is more a theme park than a site of Confederate pilgrimage, host to (what I consider) a cynical and rank nostalgia for a time and place that is foreign to most visitors. An idealized Reconstruction-era Southern town, a Tara-like plantation house, and a nighttime laser show on the mountainside smash together a hodgepodge of images of the South in ways designed more to entertain and sell Coca-Cola than they are to inspire sentiments of Southern pride, let alone historical reflection and understanding. The real way in which this monument to commodification reveals anything about the heritage and legacy of the Confederacy and Old South lies in the political economy of the park itself – public lands used for private gain, managed (at the time I wrote the article in 2002) by deeply conservative groups, and dependent on a labor force made up largely of African-Americans performing low-wage service work with few benefits or protections.

So should those statues and other monuments to Lee and Jackson and Davis and unnamed Confederate soldiers be torn down, or locked away in storage, or placed into museums, or surrounded by new and more representative monuments to different but equally valid historical narratives? In some cases, yes, these monuments should come down or at least the names should be changed to signal the significant breaks with that legacy. But in other cases, perhaps they should remain, as monuments not to the Confederacy but instead as pieces of living history, reimagined, reworked, and remade into lessons about the forms of oppression and violence that the South and the US as a whole struggles to put behind itself. So perhaps we can add to these memorials in ways that tell the present why they are there in the first place, what kind of society preceded us in those places, and in what ways the histories they embody might remain with us into the future, even as we try to overcome them. In doing so, we should keep in mind Faulkner’s oft-quoted line from Requiem for a Nun:

The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.