Ruminations on Southern ‘heritage’

Phil Anderson

“The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it”
- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Long overdue progress is finally being made on removing a number of the racist symbols and monuments across the country. The public out-rage over the latest excessive use of force by police, and the resulting demonstrations, have brought renewed focus to the issue of racist, demeaning sports team mascots, and the wide-spread monuments to Confederate Civil War “heroes” and slave owners.

Needless to say the racists, white supremacists, and far-right radicals are upset that their “heritage” is being destroyed and history is being re-written to eliminate their heroes.

The current occupant has joined the choir claiming that “angry mobs” directed by radical leftists are “trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.”

But it is not unreasonable, or radical, to suggest that slave owners – who fought a war of rebellion against the United States to preserve slavery – might not be the “heroes” who should be honored in our town squares or on the court house lawn.

Many concerned citizens – white, black, liberal, and conservative –  understand that theses symbols are rooted in the racism that divides our people and mocks our founding ideals. They are simply demanding that we finally, publicly renounce the racism that has permeated our laws, justice system, and social relationships throughout our history.

In a 2019 report the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that 100 monuments and other symbols of the Confederacy have recently been removed.

But there are still 1,747 Confederate monuments, place names, and other symbols still in public spaces cross the nation. They include:

• 780 monuments and statues
• 103 public K-12 schools and three colleges named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis or other Confederate icons
• 80 counties and cities named for Confederates
• 9 observed state holidays in five states
• 10 U.S. military bases named for Confederate generals.

These do not include monuments in actual historic sites, cemeteries, or museums with legitimate historic purpose.

Critics may say removing these symbols is “erasing history.” But the argument that the Confederate flag and statues represent Southern heritage, and not hate, ignores the real history. These symbols were created to bolster white supremacist pride, re-write southern history, justify seven decades of Jim Crow, and support the denial of civil rights to Black Americans.

This is proven by the historical fact that the overwhelming majority of these Confederate memorials were erected during the 20th century.

This was during the peak of the Jim Crow era with its widespread terrorism and lynchings. They were not built just to commemorate fallen soldiers but as symbols of white supremacy during periods of U.S. history when Black Americans’ civil rights were most aggressively under attack.

The report by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows the big spike in establishing Confederate memorials came during the early 1900s. This was when Southern states enacted a number of sweeping laws to disenfranchise Black Americans and segregate society. It was an organized strategy to reshape Civil War history and justify segregation.

Jane Dailey, professor of American history at the University of Chicago, points out that 1920-40 was the largest period of monument construction.

It was also a time of Black activism for civil rights and pushing back against widespread lynchings in the South.

She says, “You have Black soldiers who have just fought for their country [in World War I] and fought to make the world safe for democracy, coming back to an America that’s determined to lynch them...Those were very clearly white supremacist monuments and are designed to intimidate, not just memorialize.”

Further proof is that re-naming of schools happened after the 1954 Brown vs the Board of Education Supreme Court decision that desegregated public schools.

From 1954 to 1970, at least 45 colleges and schools were re-named after Confederate soldiers and generals. This time period also saw an explosion “white flight” from public schools with the creation of segregated private and religious schools.

These actions were not about celebrating Southern heritage. These changes were meant to promote white supremacy and further segregation even though it had been declared illegal.   

The question is who’s heritage is being remembered. It is certainly NOT the history of the mistreatment of Blacks.

Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center asks, “Who have we left out of history? What history aren’t we telling through the veneration of Confederate leaders?”

History is not being “erased.” It is being taught more fully and more accurately.
We will know who Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other Confederate leaders were and what they did.

But we also know about the many people who died and suffered for white prosperity and their “way of life.”

The far more dangerous threat to history is ignoring what actually happened to Blacks, indigenous peoples, immigrants, women and other marginalized people.  
Karen Armstrong is a British author who writes about the roll of religion in modern society. In her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, she says,  

“We can either emphasize those aspects of our traditions, religious or secular, that speak of hatred, exclusion, and suspicion or work with those that stress the interdependence and equality of all human beings. The choice is yours.”

Professor Annette Gordon-Reed who teaches American History and Legal History at Harvard Law School says, “The United States was far from perfect, but the values of the Confederacy, open and unrepentant white supremacy and total disregard for the humanity of black people, to the extent they still exist, have produced tragedy and discord. There is no path to a peaceful and prosperous country without challenging and rejecting that as a basis for our society.”  

We all have a patriotic duty to reject the racism ingrained in our society. We must end the traditions that foster hate, division, and exclusion. It is time to take down the symbols of racism.