Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, some protesters are turning their attention toward removing Confederate monuments. Notably, after a group defaced a Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument in a public park in Birmingham, the mayor ordered its removal. In light of this movement, we're resurfacing a piece about the true origins of many of those statues that was written in the wake of the 2017 demonstrations in Charlottesville.
Over the weekend, hundreds of white nationalists descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia for two days of violent protests prompted by the city's plan to remove a monument to Robert E. Lee.
Those who argue in favor of keeping the larger-than-life depiction of the Virginian commander of the Confederate Army sitting atop his horse often cite Southern heritage and history as reasons to keep the monument. But like most Confederate war shrines, this oxidized green statue wasn't erected during Reconstruction as a way to honor those men who died in battle. Rather, it dates back to 1924, more than 50 years after the Civil War was over.
In 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimated that there were over 1,500 "symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces" in the United States. The majority of them are located, as one might expect, in the 11 states that seceded from the union, but as Vice aptly points out, some can be found in Union states (New York, for example has three, Pennsylvania, four) and at least 22 of them are located in states that didn't even exist during the Civil War.
How can that be possible? Because largely, Confederate monuments were built during two key periods of American history: the beginnings of Jim Crow in the 1920s and the civil rights movement in the early 1950s and 1960s.
To be sure, some sprung up in the years following the Confederacy's defeat (the concept of a Confederate memorial day dates back to back to 1866 and was still officially observed by the governments of Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, as of the publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center's report), and some continue to be built—USA Today notes that 35 Confederate monuments have been erected in North Carolina since 2000.
But when these statues—be they historical place markers, or myth-building icons of Lee or Stonewall Jackson—were built seems to suggest these monuments have very little to do with paying tribute to the Civil War dead and everything to do with erecting monuments to black disenfranchisement, segregation, and 20th-century racial tension.
And in our current political climate, 150 years after the Civil War, it's no surprise these monuments find themselves back in the spotlight yet again. This time, the debate for many governments is how to lessen the hate, by removing the monuments or relocating them to museums with appropriate context. Baltimore, for example, took down statues of Confederate heroes in the middle of the night to avoid conflict. But the violence in Charlottesville last weekend is proof that they are not merely markers of a distant history but rather a symbol that we still have much to put right in the 21st century.
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