Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Confederate Monuments and History

Something I've been hearing: "First they are taking down statues... what next, are they gonna burn books? You shouldn't erase history!" My response:
The act of a local, state, or national government putting up statues is not a way of MARKING history,it is a way of commemorating, or CELEBRATING, particular people or events. Sometimes it is a way of commemorating innocent victims of something very bad that happened, or celebrating a group of anonymous people, but more often it is an endorsement of, and praise to, particular individuals. This is different from historical markers, that are all over the country, which flat-out mark the history of something that happened in a particular place. Do you believe, for instance, that the world will forget the history of James Earl Ray, assassin of MLK, unless we put up a statue of him? Of course not, and to do so would be outrageous, especially if it was on public property like a courthouse, because it would clearly be a celebration of him.
"But," some would respond, "taking down Confederate statues -or any statues -is defacing the past, since those statues are a reflection of the times in which they were made." First, I would point out that most of these statues, when removed, are taken to museums... what could be more historical preservationist than that? Second, times change, as do attitudes, and we should be cognizant of what values our local governments choose to memorialize. What you as a private citizen choose to place on your property, or on your person, is completely different from what should be displayed on government or public property.
And I've heard some say that, in placing 21st century values on 19th century things, we are guilty of "presentism"... people should be judged by the norms and mores of their own time. To which I reply: wherever you are in the South, there was a sizable minority of people in your town during the Civil War who opposed the Confederacy and thought it was wrong. Who looked at the whole thing, essentially, kinda like we do now. So the "presentism" argument does not fly.
Finally, I've heard people claim that taking down statues that represent something negative is "whitewashing" history. Just because we don't like something in the past is no excuse for trying to change or erase it, they would say. Many, in fact I'd guess the vast majority of, people who say that believe that the Civil War was not really about slavery but about a constitutional disagreement over states' rights, and even that slavery was not as bad as people say. This demonstrates an incomplete and fundamentally wrong view of the Civil War. Having all these Confederate statues around didn't help those people understand history much, did it? In fact, I'd say they worked AGAINST an accurate understanding, because they perpetuate the Lost Cause myth.
Now I'm going to go back to presentism. Because if you make that argument -if you say we have to look at how people felt at the time these statues went up -you have to be honest, or get educated, about when and why they went up. Confederate statues and flags in public places have a specific history, and it starts decades after the Civil War. In fact, the vast majority of them appeared in one of two eras: either the early 1900s to the 1920s, or circa 1950 to 1965.
Era One was the decades after the establishment of Jim Crow segregation laws, a time when lynching was rampant because "uppity" blacks were not allowed to exist. A time when groups like the NAACP were founded to fight those things and protect the rights of black Americans; a time when the KKK came back into the spotlight and reached its peak in American history; a time when black men served in the military in WWI and came back more ready to organize, leading to even more lynchings and race riots.
Era Two was the Civil Rights era, when segregation was being challenged by black activists, and the national government was starting to put chinks in Jim Crow's armor (Truman desegregating the military by executive order, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, Eisenhower sending troops to impose order on the desegregation of the Little Rock high school). When the Democratic Party announced civil rights as one of the planks in its platform in 1948, the same summer Truman integrated the military, a large number of Southern Democrats left and formed their own third party (the "Dixiecrats") with their primary stated purpose being to preserve segregation and white supremacy. They used the Rebel flag as their symbol, and it started showing up everywhere. There was also another resurgence of the KKK.
So when you hear about flags and statues coming down, take note of the date given as to how long they had stood. Almost all of them went up in one of these two periods (the Lee statue at the heart of the protests in Charlottesville, VA, went up in 1924; the Confederate Soldier statue toppled by a crowd in Durham, NC, went up in 1925- incidentally, the two peak years of the KKK). Know what that means? It means they are not really about the Civil War at all, they are about white supremacy and opposition to civil rights. And they are on government property. And by the way, that Confederate battle flag that Bree Newsome climbed up that flagpole to take down two years ago? It went up over the SC statehouse in 1962.
Historical context is important.

[You may also be interested in this particular blog post from a few years back, as well: "History, Memory, and the American Civil War"
List of previous historical essays

Check out my collection of award winning historical fiction short stories HERE

11 comments:

  1. Mr Smith. I enjoyed your article and learned much about when and why the statues/monuments were erected. I am of the belief that the statues belong in museums and not on public property. I just want to clarify one part of your article. The SC legislature passed a bill in April 2000 to remove the flag from the state house dome and place it on a flag pole in front of the statehouse. Bree Newsome bravely scaled this flagpole and removed the flag on June 27, 2015, 10 days after the massacre of nine innocent people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. The flag was permanently removed by vote of the SC Senate in July 2015.

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    1. Thank you for that clarificationn, I'll correct that at once,

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  2. I've never known what to make of the fact that the Robert E. Lee estate is directly across the Potomac from DC on a big hill near the water where you can't miss seeing it. And that the United States has designated the mansion as a National Memorial to Lee.

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    1. I don't think that's true - the US gov't seized Lee's estate and turned jt into Arlington National Cemetary. Quartermastee Meigs during the Civil War buried casualties right around the mansion ie the rise garden so Lee would never live there again.

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  3. A terrific paper that shows how history should be used to interprète the present. Many thanks!

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  4. I should have said: 'interprète the present CORRECTLY.'

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  5. An excellent post. In Hungary they put all their awful Soviet-era statues in "Monument Park" so they exist and are sequestered together for those who want a look at "history". Maybe we could do that.

    As a Civil War buff I find conservative claims over "erasing history" (because of Connfederate statue or flag removal) hilarious. There are hundreds of battlefields with thousands of monuments. Seek them out - where actual history took place! :-)

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    1. I've been to Monument Park and since that have hoped we might consider some similar idea. It was a powerful experience, I was glad for the opportunity to see the iconic Soviet statues. BTW reader might was to know, the Part is not placed very prominently in Budapest, but in a suburban area that requires two trains and a walk, so one has to seek them out

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  6. The fact that the far right uses a respect for history as a justification for keeping these monuments up while ignoring the actual history of these monuments is one more reason my irony meter is broken.

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  7. The statues in Budapest's Monument Park are intriguing because of their history. They are all together, so visitors can consider them in context.

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