The death of George Floyd at the hands, er knee, of the Minneapolis Police Department will forever change the landscape of our country. A literal change involves removal of reminders of the Confederacy. Protests against anti-black racism and police brutality have rekindled efforts to take down Confederate monuments and symbols across the U.S. These reminders of slavery in our country’s history will soon be gone with the wind.
The debate rages as to whether allowing these reminders of the Confederacy to remain promotes racism or simply reminds us of our heritage. According to James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Society, “The symbols sustain racist policy….” Many view Confederate flags and monuments as symbols of racism and oppression. But perhaps racism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Southerners might view Confederate items are part of their heritage while Northerners would not. Their perspectives are likely to be as different as those of author John Gray’s Mars (men) and Venus (women).
So how many monuments and symbols are we talking about? Reportedly there are approximately 1,700 Confederate monuments and symbols scattered about the nation. The Smithsonian indicates that 800 of the 1,700 are monuments. What a monumental amount!
Virginia is the state with the most Confederate monuments. 2019 data from the Southern Poverty Law Center indicates the Commonwealth is the site of 110 Confederate monuments. Thirteen of these monuments are located in Richmond, which served as the capital of the Confederate States. In fact, Richmond even has a Monument Avenue with five Confederate monuments there.
The epicenter (oooh! so glad to use this word NOT in connection with the pandemic) of the controversy about Confederate monuments is the six story high monument of Robert E. Lee in Richmond owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Six STORIES? Talk about a statue being larger than life….Robert E. Lee, of course, was the Confederacy’s top general. Protesters have recently defaced this statue.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has announced a a decision to remove General Lee’s statue. But–not so fast, Gov.! A Richmond City Circuit Judge on Monday issued a ten day injunction against removal of Lee’s likeness. Great–more drama. Well, at least this drama is in the courtroom and not out on the streets.
Who needs legal sanction to bring down Confederate monuments? Not protesters apparently. On June 6th, protesters in Richmond pulled down a statue of General Williams Carter Wickham which stood in Monroe Park approximately one mile from where Lee’s monument stands (well, at least until the injunction is lifted.) A Confederate monument in Birmingham’s Linn Park had to be removed on June 1st after it was damaged during weekend protests.
Almost all Confederate monuments were built in the late 1800’s or the early 1900’s. The Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, for example, was unveiled way back in 1890. The other four Confederate monuments on Monument Avenue were erected in the early 1900’s. They are historical for the fact of having stood for so long if nothing else.
But the historical context in which the monuments were raised provides fodder for labeling them as symbols of racism. The Southern Poverty Law Center found there was a surge in Confederate monuments being put up in the early 1900’s when Jim Crow laws were being enacted. Another surge occurred in the 1950’s and 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement. Coincidence? The SPLC thinks not.
And it’s not just monuments that are in protesters’ crosshairs. The Richmond NAACP is proposing a name change for a the Jefferson Davis Highway. Davis, for those of you who’ve forgotten your Civil War history, was the president of the Confederate States.
Then there are plaques. On Monday night the University of Alabama announced it will remove three plaques dedicated to Confederate soldiers who attended ‘Bama. The plaques are to be moved to a “more appropriate historical” location. Good thing those soldiers are deceased because I doubt they’d send any financial support to their alma mater after their plaques’ transfer.
Even the Pentagon is getting in on the “Let’s erase any trace of the Confederacy” movement. Under consideration is a name change for ten bases named after Confederate leaders. These sites include Fort Bragg, North Carolina, named after General Braxton Bragg a North Carolina native who commanded the Army of Mississippi, and Fort Benning, Georgia, named after Brig. Gen. Henry Benning, a Georgia politician and supporter of slavery. Benning was also a lawyer, but thankfully that profession isn’t what he’s being called on the carpet for (says this fellow lawyer).
The first boots on the Tear Them Down ground are the U.S. Marines. The few, the proud, and the brave may raise an American flag, but they are banned from displaying a Confederate battle flag. Army officials are also contemplating such a ban for their troops. Not to be left behind, the Navy announced Tuesday its staff is working on an order prohibiting Confederate battle flags in work areas, aircraft, and vessels “to preserve good order.” Protest disorder has led to this move.
The oldest Confederate monument in Florida is located in my local area–at least for now. A Civil War memorial in DeFuniak Springs can be found on the grounds of the Walton County Courthouse. It recognizes local Confederate troops who died in the Civil War. First erected in 1871 at a local church, the monument was later moved for more prominent display at the courthouse in the county seat. Guess I was oblivious to the monument the many times I’ve been at the courthouse on business.
Another Florida Confederate monument is already gone with the wind. Early Tuesday morning (yes, 4:00 a.m. is pretty early), workers removed a monument from Hemming Park in Jacksonville. The statue of the Jacksonville Light Infantry which had been in the park since 1898 came down just hours before a planned protest, to be led by Jags running back Leonard Fournette, outside city hall next to the park. What timing!
Removal of Confederate monuments and symbols will continue to be advocated for and opposed in the coming days. But like it or not and whether good, bad, or indifferent, the Confederacy is a historical fact. Taking down reminders of it won’t change history. Perhaps we shouldn’t try to erase history. Let’s try to learn from it and not repeat our past mistakes.
Are there any Confederate monuments or symbols present in your local area? Should they come down? Why or why not? Will removing a statue change people’s thinking? If not, what will?