In the wake of the neo-Nazi attacks in Charlottesville, officials in several Southern states have renewed calls to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces.
This week, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) called for the removal of all Confederate monuments in North Carolina. Mayor Jim Gray (D) of Lexington, Kentucky, announced the removal of two Confederate statues from a historic courthouse in the city. And officials in Florida and Maryland made similar announcements.
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But the conversation around the monuments’ removal is missing crucial context around how they got there in the first place. Most Confederate monuments were constructed at the dawn of the Jim Crow era, decades after the Civil War, with a second uptick in the 1960s in response to the civil rights movement. Like the popularity of the Confederate battle flag, their construction neatly aligns with backlash against racial progress.
To learn more about the evolution of Civil War iconography, I spoke to Professor Kirk Savage. Savage has spent a career studying the history of monuments. He’s written about the construction of the National Mall, the 9/11 memorial, and he is perhaps best known for Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America, a book on the history of Civil War monuments.
Jeremy Slevin: I think a lot of people don’t know that most of these monuments were constructed after the Civil War, around the turn of the 20th century. Can you give us a sense of the timeline and why that happened?
Kirk Savage: The big boom in Confederate monument building was roughly between 1890 and 1920, and then there was a secondary boom in Confederate commemoration that was in reaction to the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s. In both these cases, there were political reasons why those monuments were erected when they were. The first boom took place during the consolidation of Jim Crow and racial segregation in the South, the final defeat of the ideals of reconstruction and racial equality in the South. The second boom took place when that Jim Crow era came under threat from the civil rights movement.
Now, I should say that in the North, there was a less marked but similar lag in monument construction, simply because the veterans of that war were dying off. But what really distinguished the white Southern commemoration of the lost cause was the systematic campaign to build monuments, rewrite textbooks, and put Confederate flags and symbols in public schools. This was happening in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a systematic propaganda campaign to advance the racial cause of the Confederacy.
JS: And the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville was constructed at the tail end of that first wave, in the 1920s?
KS: Right, in the 1920s, if I remember correctly. That’s interesting in a way, that it took them so long. Richmond erected its huge monument to Robert E. Lee in 1890, and New Orleans a few years before that. The Richmond monument really kicked off the campaign to make the Confederacy respectable again.
JS: I was struck in your book that these weren’t necessarily initiated by the government. In a lot of cases, they were these volunteer, activist organizations that pushed for these monuments. Can you talk a little bit about that?
KS: Yes, yes, in fact it wasn’t until much later that state governments got involved. In the earlier days in the late 19th century it was these activist organizations that were in the South, largely driven by women’s groups. The United Daughters of the Confederacy was the outgrowth of that organization, which then conducted this systematic campaign that I just mentioned.
There were these pockets of resistance.
That’s the way public monuments worked in general in the 19th century. It was elite civic organizations that erected them, and only certain groups had real access to public space in that period of time. So of course African Americans, Native Americans, people of color had no access to that arena and no entry into those conversations.
JS: Was there public backlash? Of course this is the Jim Crow South we’re talking about, but was there public outcry to these monuments?
KS: There was some, which is interesting. To return to the example of Richmond and the monument to Lee in 1890, there was a black newspaper called The Richmond Planet that published a fiery series of articles in opposition to it, talking about the black community’s relationship to that monument, which of course is entirely different from the white community’s. There were these pockets of resistance. They were largely overlooked by the mainstream white media and politicians, but they were there. What it shows us is that that kind of resistance, that kind of attitude was always there. It just wasn’t reported for the most part.
JS: As you mentioned earlier, there was a second wave during the civil rights movement, which many of us associate with progress and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. But there wasn’t a systematic campaign to take down these monuments. In fact, we saw an uptick. Why do you think that was?
KS: Well, look who was in charge of the state and local governments in the South. They were still exclusively in white hands, and they were very worried about their loss of power and the potential that they might have to share power with African Americans. It was very much a backlash against that civil rights movement. You see places like Alabama for the first time in the 1960s displaying the Confederate flag on its capitol building. It was very much a defiant pushback against the forces that were trying to destroy segregation.
JS: It sounds like that mirrors the iconography of the Confederate flag as well. It became a symbol during the lost cause and was taken up by the segregationists in the 1960s. Have they followed a similar trajectory?
KS: Monuments and flags you mean?
In defining the past we define our present.
KS: Yeah, it’s interesting to me that after the Dylann Roof massacre in the Charleston church, the first symbols to be attacked were the flags. Of course, he was shown in those photographs holding the Confederate flags. So it’s interesting now that with the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville at the Robert E. Lee memorial, the attention has turned to monuments. But yes, in a sense, these always went in a parallel process. But the unraveling seems to go flag first, monument second.
JS: In the book you write, “Public monuments were meant to yield resolution and consensus … but the process of commemoration often leads to conflict, not closure, because in defining the past we define our present.” What do you see as the next step? Is there a closure? Do these monuments have to come down?
KS: That’s a really tricky question because I have, for a long time, been maintaining—hoping—that we can have a “truth commission” kind of dialogue around these monuments, so the monuments could inspire us and open the way to really confront the legacy of slavery and white supremacy in this nation. The question of what to do with any particular Confederate monument would raise those larger questions that we urgently need to explore and wrestle with as a society.
We can’t just take these monuments down and think that we have solved our problem.
Unfortunately though, I think what’s happened now with Dylann Roof and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville is that the time for dialogue is closing around these monuments. Local governments are put in a position where they have to take them down, because otherwise they’re going to be appropriated by neo-Nazis, or they’re going to be torn down by counter-protestors. It’s a little hard for me to know what the way forward is now because we need to have this dialogue. We can’t just take these monuments down and think that we have solved our problem, because we won’t have. But on the other hand, the monuments are honoring something that we absolutely need to repudiate. The easiest way to repudiate them is to take them down. And I understand why that was done in New Orleans, and I think the mayor there did an eloquent job of explaining why they had to come down. But now everything is lightning speed, and it’s hard to know where we’re going to be even a week from now.
JS: We shall see. I appreciate you joining me professor. Thanks so much, Kirk.
This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and will air as part of a complete episode on August 18. It was lightly edited for clarity.