Monuments to white supremacy

With attention turning to the Confederate monuments that litter the South, and the push to dismantle some of them, Cindy Beringer tells the story of their racist legacy.

Anti-racists rally for the removal of Confederate monuments in New OrleansAnti-racists rally for the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS Mayor Mitch Landrieu's recent removal of four Confederate monuments has galvanized the nation in two directions--one pointing to a perverse ideal of "honoring" the past by reimagining history and the other to the question of what exactly defines greatness in a nation that has been built upon slave labor.

Dylan Roof's murder of nine churchgoers at an AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 and photos of him posing proudly with guns by a Confederate battle flag added new momentum to the drive to take down the flag and the monuments. Some have been removed, usually with protests and controversy.

But according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are more than 1,500 Confederate-related sites in 31 states. Approximately 60 statues have been taken down recently, but at least 700 Confederate statues and monuments still stand. The Confederate flag still flies proudly on flagpoles and car bumpers, and state employees in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia get the day off for Confederate Memorial Day.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE REMOVAL of Confederate memorials in New Orleans was a necessary changing of the guard for that city's historical memory. Landrieu's early announcement of removal plans spurred several protests and standoffs involving both sides of the issue.

The names of possible bidding contractors were kept secret after several received death threats and harassment. A bidder pulled out after he received threats and his car was torched. Landrieu said that nearly every crane operator in southern Louisiana had been threatened.

The first three monuments--the Liberty Place obelisk and the Jefferson Davis and General Beauregard statues--were taken down in the dead of night by city workers wearing bulletproof vests, military-style helmets and scarves to obscure their faces. Barricades blocked entrances to the monuments, and snipers watched from the top of a parking garage.

The Liberty Place monument had already been moved once in shame to a back street. It was erected in 1891 to honor 16 members of the Crescent City White Workers League comprised predominantly of Confederate veterans who died during a Reconstruction-era white supremacist attack on the city's integrated police force.

In the Confederate statue-removing process, it is always the statue of the heavily mythologized slave owner and Confederate General Robert E. Lee that comes down with the biggest bang and the loudest protests.

The cult of Robert E. Lee inexplicably holds on to a distorted concept of this defeated slaveholder. Former President Dwight Eisenhower said that Lee was "selfless almost to a fault...noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history." In 1955, Lee's former home Arlington House was designated as a national monument; it rests on the graves of thousands of Black and white Union soldiers.

Lee's statue was the last to go in New Orleans. It took hours to remove it from its towering 20-foot-high pedestal. Most of the onlookers celebrated the occasion with chants of "Take him down!" and "Hey, hey, goodbye."

In the couple of weeks leading up to the removal of Lee's statue, statue defenders came from as far away as New Mexico and Colorado to protest. Local residents sang the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" while telling the pro-Lee protesters to go away.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

SO HOW did we get to this point where the losing ideology, the side fighting for the continuation of human bondage, came to be the winner in historical memory?

The short answer lies in the failure of the 11-year experiment in Reconstruction, a genuine attempt by the "Radical" Republicans--a label which then fit the party formed only a short time before by opponents of the Southern slave power--to institute equality for the South's Black citizens. After the presence of federal troops, the old Democratic white elite and their vigilante groups largely ruled the day.

To seal the deal, the Democrats conceded the disputed presidential election between Rutherford Hayes and Samuel Tilden to Hayes in return for his agreement to withdraw the remaining federal troops. This ended Reconstruction, and the Democrats controlled the South with their platform of white supremacy and Black disenfranchisement known as the Jim Crow system.

The defeated white Southern elite faced economic devastation after the war. All they had left was land and no free labor. The freed slaves wanted land--40 acres and a mule--but they got it through either the sharecropping or tenant-farmer systems. Both have rightly been called "slavery by another name."

Landless poor whites were also victims in these exploitative farming systems, faring only slightly better than the Black farmers.

Churches in the South played a large part in defending slavery before the Civil War and after abolition, many claiming that slavery and the separation of the races was Biblically ordained, a thinly veiled notion that persists today, especially in the South.

Maintaining order was essential to keeping this cruel and fragile system together for the benefit of the landed class. South Carolina Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell did not mince words about this:

The parties in the conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders. They are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battleground--Christianity and Atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity at stake.

After Blacks demanded an end to the Jim Crow reign of terror during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a more sophisticated system denying Black equality became the New Jim Crow.

Keeping control in a system like this requires some real finesse--like renaming the war the "War of Northern Aggression" and focusing on battle strategy rather than cause in all their histories.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE MAJORITY of Confederate statues weren't erected in the immediate postwar period. Most went up during periods of increased racial tension--after the "separate but equal" decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, and at other times when many states were passing harsh race laws.

There was also an increase in statues during the civil rights era and the push for integration and voting rights.

Edward H. Bonekemper's 2015 book Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won exposes the mythology which had fostered racial hostility for generations to the benefit of the ruling elite. He meticulously points out the disastrous consequences that would have followed a Southern victory. Yet the myth persists, as the fight to remove Lost Cause symbols intensifies.

USA Today reports that the number of Civil War monuments has increased in this century, with 35 monuments added in North Carolina alone since 2000. In Mitchell County, North Carolina, a memorial honors 79 men "who died for their freedom and independence."

After the removal of the New Orleans statues, Mayor Landrieu told it like it is in a way that doesn't happen very often among politicians:

The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered...

These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement and the terror that it actually stood for.

However, following these words, Landrieu inexplicably goes against the entire thesis of his argument by quoting George W. Bush's fictionalized vision of the nation and, one assumes, of his presidency: "A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them."

Landrieu's quote voices respect for the architect of never-ending terrorist wars against humanity--wars based entirely on lies, the flaws of which will never be corrected.

The statues are gone, but the nation's lies will continue.

As protesters on both sides of the issue gathered behind separate barricades one afternoon in New Orleans, someone asked where it would all end: "Would a statue of George Washington be next?"

Malcolm Suber, one of the organizers of the Take Em Down NOLA Coalition, chuckled, saying he would be delighted to see the Washington statue by the New Orleans Public Library come down.

"He was a slave master, right?"

Ay, there's the rub.