I wasn’t born in the South, but because of economic factors too complicated to go into at this juncture, the small town in Colorado where I was born was inhabited almost completely by recently transplanted southerners. All of my grandparents had been born in former Confederate states, as had most of the teachers at the public school, and the parents and/or grandparents of 95+ percent of my classmates at school. And even though my father’s job had us moving around to other parts of the central Rockies through most of grade school, because our family attended Southern Baptists churches, I continued to be exposed to certain myths about the Civil War that descendants of Confederate families tell themselves. I was taught that slavery wasn’t the primary issue of the war, for one. I was taught that most soldiers on the Confederate side had been involved for economic reasons, and certainly not because they believed that whites were superior to blacks, for another. And I was taught that just because the Southern Baptist church and many other institutions still advocated for the segregation of that races, that it wasn’t because they still believed that one race was superior to the other.
Each of those statements was a lie.
I was a teen-ager in the 70s when the Southern Baptist Convention finally endorsed desegregation of its churches. And it was as a teen that I learned most of what I’d been taught about the history of our denomination and the Civil War was untrue.
Historically, every state that seceded to form the Confederacy (not just Mississippi a port of whose declaration is pictured above), explicitly listed either slavery or the superiority of the white race (and some mentioned both), as their reasons for seceding. The infamous cornerstone speech delivered by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens explained that the foundation of the new Confederate government was “the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
It can’t be any clearer than that: the primary mission of the Confederacy was the perpetuation of slavery of black people and the entrenchment (nay, glorification) of white supremacy. And Confederate soldiers did not volunteer, fight, and die by the thousands because of some need to preserve the mythical idyllic pastoral culture of the Southern plantation—most of them were too poor to own plantations, for one thing! No, typical Confederate grunt believed that if slaves were freed, working class whites would surely lose their livelihoods. The collective self-esteem of the white working class was shored up by the explicit statement that at least they weren’t slaves, so while they might have worked hard in exchange for less than their fair share of societal prosperity, at east they were better off than those black folks! The abolition of slavery was then perceived as an existential threat to the white working class. Of course they were willing to take up arms to protect slavery!
In the immediate aftermath of the war, symbols of the Confederacy weren’t displayed publicly. There were memorials erected in a few places to those who died in one battle or another, and certainly individual tombstones were occasionally emblazoned with Confederate symbols, but there wasn’t a stampede to erect statues to the leaders of the Confederacy afterward. For one thing, there wasn’t a lot of pride in having been on the losing side.
The first big rush of Confederate monuments was years after the war ended as Reconstruction officially ended and Federal troops were withdrawn in 1877. Across the former Confederacy, state legislatures started enacting Jim Crow laws, designed to make it difficult or nearly impossible for black people to exercise their right to vote and to enforce segregation of the races. And statues and monuments went up all over the South. The plaques usually talked about the bravery of the person depicted, but there were also language about the nobility of the cause for which they fought. Blacks living in those states, most of whom were former slaves, knew exactly what that cause had been, and the message the statues and monuments was clearly: “white people are in charge again, and don’t you forget it!”
Most of the Confederate monuments were put up in the 1910s and 1920s, coinciding with an increase in activity of the KKK and similar organizations terrorizing blacks. And the next big surge was in the 50s and 60s when civil rights organizations began having successes against some of the Jim Crow laws. The purpose of those monuments was not to honor the culture of the South, the message was still “stay in your place, black people, or else!” A great example of this resides not many miles from my home. Washington territory was never a part of the Confederacy, and the few inhabitants of the state who served in the war did so as part of the Union Army and Navy. A local family, some years after the war, donated land in what would one day become the Capitol Hill neighborhood to the Grand Army of the Republic (which was an organization made up mostly of Union side Civil War Veterans) for a cemetery for Union soldiers. And that’s who was buried there. But decades later, during one of those surges of monument building, the Daughters of the Confederacy paid to have a monument to soldiers of the Confederacy erected in the cemetery. There are no Confederate soldiers buried there. Not one. And there are no soldiers’ names engraved on the massive monument. But there it is, erected in a cemetery full of Union soldiers, a monument to the so-called noble cause of the Confederacy.
Now that some communities are rethinking these monuments—many of them extremely cheap bronze statues erected during times of civil rights tensions—other people are claiming taking them down is erasing history. No, taking down these post-dated monuments in public parks and so forth isn’t erasing history, it’s erasing anti-historical propaganda. The other argument that is put forward in defense of the monuments is that “both sides deserve to be heard.” That’s BS in this case, because there aren’t two sides to racism. There aren’t two sides to bigotry. There aren’t two sides to genocide. White supremacy is not a legitimate side to any argument.
When we defeated Hitler’s armies, we didn’t turn around and erect monuments to the government that murdered millions of people in concentration camps. We destroyed their symbols. When we liberated Iraq, we tore down the statues of Saddam Hussein, we didn’t enshrine his image in an attempt to give both sides equal time. Those few Confederate monuments that list off names of people who died are fine (even if a lot of them have cringeworthy language about the cause they were fighting for). Cemeteries where actual Confederate veterans are buried of course can have symbols of the Confederacy on the tombstones and the like. But the other monuments, the ones erected years later, they don’t belong in the public square.
They belong in the dustbin of history.