One of the recurring arguments I have been hearing as to why we should not remove Confederate monuments from government lands and buildings is that we need to remember our history. Yet, the very history of these monuments is reason enough to validate their immediate removal. Keeping them is a white-washing and sanitizing of our history… not the other way around.
So, here’s a brief history lesson about Confederate monuments (especially those in the South).
The first government-sponsored monuments to the Confederacy were not erected until after 1877–a full twelve years (that’s the equivalent of 3 presidential terms, ya’ll) after the Civil War ended.
That date is important because that date marks a major turning point in the post Civil War culture of the American South.
In 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote in the presidential election. However, he held an edge in the electoral college over Samuel J. Tilden with the votes of four states still undetermined. These undetermined votes would become the source of a great deal of speculation and dispute. All told, this dispute provided for 20 electoral votes, enough to sway the election one way or the other.
Eventually, in 1877, a backroom deal was brokered, granting all 20 electoral votes to Hayes in exchange for his promise to remove federal presence from the South. This effectively ended the Reconstruction Era.
The end of Reconstruction meant federal troops were no longer keeping the peace nor enforcing federal law in the South, ushering in the Jim Crow era.
During Reconstruction the black vote had been significant, even allowing for a great deal of local, state, and federal leadership to be filled by African Americans. However, once Reconstruction came to an abrupt end, the South began passing laws which prevented black men from being able to vote or hold office. The KKK, emboldened by the new lack of federal presence, rose to a fever pitch, terrorizing black men and women throughout the South. Lynch mobs became commonplace, openly torturing black men before a “picnic audience” of men, women and children who had come out to watch and champion the brutality. The prison system became the new form of slavery. Black men were picked up randomly and rapidly found guilty in puppet trials and sentenced to hard labor on chain gangs–chain gangs which were sent straight back to the plantations from which these men had been freed.
And the whitewashing of the Southern history began.
Generals and soldiers and politicians who had been enemies of the state, who had incited war, who had taken up arms against their own nation, were lauded as heroes. Their likenesses were erected in public places, rewriting history. Rather than acknowledging the loss of a war, the war was reframed and victory declared.
Prior to 1877, if a black man or woman in the South felt they were being oppressed or their rights as free men and women were being trampled, they could go to the halls of government to seek help and relief. But after 1877 the images of the Confederacy guarded those institutions and sent a clear message to the freed slaves of the South: You will find no help here.
Whether they were being tormented by Klansmen dressed as Confederate ghosts, or blocked from an avenue of reprieve by a Confederate General carved from stone, their every effort to live into their new freedom was stalled by the racism of the South.
These statues created a false history–one which declared victory in the face of loss, one which refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the freed slaves living amongst them.
If we are going to be faithful to history, we can only do it by removing these symbols of oppression and racism. We do it by studying them in textbooks, by learning about them in museums… but we can’t be faithful to history by allowing the revisionist version to continue standing guard outside our government halls.