Does Preserving Confederate History Outweigh the Need to Remove Symbols of a People’s Oppression?

Confederate monuments in New Orleans are being removed.

The Battle of Liberty Place monument commemorates 5,000 members of the Crescent City White League’s attack on the city’s Reconstructionist government in 1874, resulting in more than 100 deaths, including several African-American officers. While it would seem obvious why such a monument would be offensive to most, the curious development is that there are some that defend this monument as a history worth preserving.

When New Orleans city government started removal of four Confederate monuments, it was with the intention of erasing an eyesore from the landscape of the city. The removals are being seen as the end of a journey to reclaim New Orleans’ public spaces from a history of overt racism and praise of the Confederate South’s quest to preserve the institution of slavery. The struggle to remove the monuments started with the city’s post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, escalated with a 2015 lawsuit protesting the removals and concluded with a March 6 ruling clearing the city to proceed.

“The removal of these statues sends a clear and unequivocal message to the people of New Orleans and the nation: New Orleans celebrates our diversity, inclusion and tolerance,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a press release issued by his office. “Relocating these Confederate monuments is not about taking something away from someone else … This is about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile — and most importantly —choose a better future.

The removal of the first one, the Battle of Liberty Place monument, was done at 2 in the morning, under sniper protection. New Orleans Police was on the scene barricading the entries to the monument, with the name of the moving trucks concealed with tape and cardboard. The workers that actually removed the monument wore flak jackets and cloth to cover their faces so they wouldn’t be recognized.

Such precautions are felt to be warranted. When former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke leaked the name and phone number of one removal job bidder, the contractor received death threats and harassing phone calls. Another would-be contractor’s $200,000 Lamborghini was torched in a separate incident. A Mississippi man was arrested after calling the Louisiana lieutenant governor and threatening to shoot New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in the face.

There may be an argument for the need to preserve this controversial history. However, there may also be an argument that the presence of these symbols of hate and the expectation of the African-American community to accept them without complaint is causing irreparable harm and exacerbating the racial divide seen today.

“America’s long history of racism makes any discussion that might be fairly linked to race insidious and divisive,” Brandy Faulkner, visiting assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Science, said. “The pushback is not just about ‘Southern pride.’ It is certainly fair to say that these pushbacks represent lingering racial animosities.

“For so long, these tensions have festered without adequate mechanisms for moving forward and accepting social progress and change. If anything, it is an indicator of how far we still have to go in pursuit of racial equality in this country.“

For many who defend the monuments, the racial implications of them are missing or downplayed. “Many of the sculptures of Southern heroes are great art,” Pablo Solomon, who identified himself as being multicultural, wrote. “I do not see Jewish people freaking out over sculptures of Pharaohs or Roman oppressors. The various tribes that were conquered and enslaved by the Aztecs and Incas do not freak out over Aztec art or Inca tapestries. … One of the only ways for the devastated and humiliated people of the South to hold on to any sort of self-worth was to remind themselves that while losing the war that their generals were outstanding and their soldiers brave.”

Solomon referred to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression,” which points to the notion that the most destructive war in American history is seen differently, depending on the perspective. For many Southerners, the Civil War was not so much a war about the right to own people, but a fight for state rights and the right to self-determination – even if the right in question is slavery.

One of the “perspectives” on the war that persists today is the notion of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy,” which paints the South as defending its way of life while minimizing or ignoring slavery. “The Legend of the Lost Cause began as mostly a literary expression of the despair of a bitter, defeated people over a lost identity,” Yale University professor Rollin G. Osterweis wrote in his book “The Myth of the Lost Cause.”

“It was a landscape dotted with figures drawn mainly out of the past: the chivalric planter; the magnolia-scented Southern belle; the good, gray Confederate veteran, once a knight of the field and saddle; and obliging old Uncle Remus. All these, while quickly enveloped in a golden haze, became very real to the people of the South, who found the symbols useful in the reconstituting of their shattered civilization. They perpetuated the ideals of the Old South and brought a sense of comfort to the New.”

This is the idealized image of the South that many monument sympathizers see in Confederate symbols like the New Orleans monuments and the Confederate battle flag. Protecting these symbols would be protecting a precious part of history for them, despite the fact that certain symbols, like the battle flag, returned to prominence in protest of civil rights.

A different view of the argument for preserving the monuments was made by John Daniel Davidson of “The Federalist,” who argues that the monuments are needed to remember what was done, good or bad. “Something as central to American history as the war between North and South should impose on us and demand our attention — not so that we can honor the principles of the Confederacy, but so we can understand and remember who we were and all we suffered to survive the Civil War and remain one nation.”

The argument goes that to avoid evil, you must confront evil so you will not forget what evil looks like. To this, there is a point. Despite its popularity with neo-Nazis, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, for example, was allowed to return to publication when the Bavarian state government’s copyright on it expired in 2016.

The Confederate symbols may have a teaching value in a museum. The monuments, however, may be different in the sense that their creation was meant to leave scars. The Battle of Liberty Place monument was erected in 1891 by the city’s Democratic leadership with the explicit purpose of being a public symbol of the disenfranchisement of the local African-American community.

“African-Americans are expected to adapt to a system of white supremacy every day,” Faulkner added. “In many ways, the Black community itself often fails to understand the extent to which racial hatred and oppression affect its members psychologically. Whether the attack comes in the form of microaggressions (e.g., prominently displaying symbols of racial oppression as public monuments, on vehicles, or on clothing) or macroaggressions (e.g., acts of state violence that continue to claim the lives of Black and brown people), we deal with some level of racial hostility consistently. … From doll tests to lunchroom segregation studies, there has been an incessant curiosity about how we survive our circumstances.”

Some have come to see the insistence on protecting Confederate symbols as part of a “sit down and take it” expectation on African-Americans by the rest of society. Questions of cultural sensitivity to these issues are increasingly becoming flashpoints in the political conversation. The frustrations are not limited to just monuments, however. They have extended to media coverage of police brutality and the resulting protests, to perceptions of the Black Lives Movement and to latent racism that was borne out under the leadership of the nation’s first Black president.

These frustrations — particularly among white voters — are being both exploited for political gain, as was demonstrated in the 2016 General Election, and borne out in acts of racial hate.

Most Americans feel that racism is a serious concern today. A June 2016 NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll showed that 52 percent of respondents found that racism against African-Americans is an “extremely” or “very” serious problem, with 25 percent finding racism to be “somewhat” of a problem.

However, there is a difference in how this is perceived by the different races. Per a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, 38 percent of whites feel that the country has already made the changes needed to give African-Americans equal rights to white, with 40 percent feeling the country eventually will make the changes. This is compared to 43 percent of African-Americans that feel the country will never make the changes needed for equal rights and only eight percent that feel that the country already made the necessary changes.

For this country to move away from white racial hegemony, there must be a conscious acknowledgement that it exists. While there may not be a conscious effort in the mind of the average person to damage someone else on racial terms, there is no denying that the sum of such efforts — intentional or not — plays against and disenfranchises entire classes of American citizens. Until these evils are addressed, they will continue to fester and leave wounds.

“It is obvious there has been a ‘sit down and take it’ attitude in this country, but it’s just not limited to monuments,” Heidi Beirich, Intelligence Project director for the SPLC, said. “Housing discrimination, job discrimination, banking discrimination, policing discrimination … being Black nowadays means putting up with a lot and soldiering through and living your lives. There is no mental study to the damage this is doing, but it is clearly leaving a mark.”

“In 2017, the Confederate monuments are reminders of a history that included rape, lynchings, stolen land, physical and mental harassment, enslavement and institutional betrayal,” Ruth Thompson-Miller, author of “Jim Crow’s Legacy: The Lasting Impact of Segregation” and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Dayton said, “the institutional betrayal of state sponsors that were charged with protecting your rights but were participants in the racial traumatic events that occurred every day in this country.

“The politicians, police, judges, enforcers of the law and state representatives have an opportunity to show the survivors of over 400 years of oppression that symbols of healing are more powerful than monuments of one of the darkest times in this country.”

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