The fiery debate over Confederate monuments and other iconography was reignited last weekend after violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists had gathered to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park.
Those pushing for the removal of Confederate monuments, flags and other markers that dot scores of public spaces throughout the South and other parts of the country say they romanticize a shameful period of American history and perversely celebrate those who fought to preserve slavery and uphold a system of white supremacy. The markers are symbols of hatred and bigotry, opponents claim, directly associated with oppression, Jim Crow and violent white resistance to the civil rights movement.
Defenders of these monuments, though, say they are benign markers of Southern heritage and culture, important historical markers that pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Southern men killed in America’s bloodiest conflict. Removing these memorials, they say, is an offensive erasure of history.
In a series of controversial, off-the-cuff remarks, President Trump on Tuesday aligned himself with the latter group, sympathizing with protesters in Charlottesville who ostensibly sought to protect the statue of Lee.
“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Mr. Trump said during a combative exchange with reporters at Trump Tower in New York.
“So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down,” he said, noting that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were also slaveholders. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” He added: “You’re changing history, you’re changing culture.”
In response, many historians were quick to note that while Washington and Jefferson did indeed own slaves and supported the institution, they were also instrumental in founding the United States and crafting its democratic institutions. On the other hand, they add, leaders of the Confederacy sought to destroy the Union, in large part to continue the enslavement of millions of African-Americans.
Preserving the institution of slavery was the primary cause for Southern secession and the resulting war. On that the historical record is clear. Slavery is explicitly mentioned in the Causes of Secession issued by nearly every Southern state, and was firmly underscored by the leaders of the rebellion. In his 1861 “Cornerstone Speech,” Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens declared: “Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
Nonetheless, a 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly half of Americans thought of states’ rights as the primary reason for the war, compared to just 38 percent who cited slavery.
An initial mobilization to purge Confederate iconography occurred in 2015 after Dylann Roof, a young man with suspected white supremacist leanings, murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in a purported effort to incite a race war. Authorities later discovered photos of Roof posing with a Confederate flag.
Contrary to Roof’s objectives, the massacre and resulting national outcry incited a grass-roots effort to remove the flag and other Confederate symbols from public spaces, forcing lawmakers to reconsider the region’s 150-year-old reverence for Confederate symbolism.
Under intense public pressure, South Carolina legislators acted first, passing legislation to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds where it had flown since 1962.
Since then, there have been more than 100 attempts at the state and local level in the South and elsewhere to remove or alter Confederate symbols and monuments. In one of the most high-profile and fiercely contested efforts, New Orleans in April dismantled four city monuments dedicated to the Confederacy and opponents of Reconstruction, following a prolonged campaign by activists. Amid threats of violence, city workers — donning body armor, masks and helmets and working under the cover of darkness — took the monuments down.
Speaking on the issue, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu insisted that the monuments represent a “false narrative.”
“These statues are not just stone and metal,” he said. “They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for. … Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.”
An analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a human rights group advocating for the removal of Confederate markers, cataloged more than 1,500 Confederate place names and other symbols scattered in public spaces across the South and elsewhere in the country. The group’s findings, which they note are not comprehensive, include more than 700 monuments, 80 counties and cities, 10 U.S. military bases and more than 100 public schools — some with largely black student populations — named for Lee, Confederacy President Jefferson Davis and other leaders.
Additionally, the SPLC identified six states that still observe official Confederate holidays. In Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi, the birthday of Robert E. Lee is celebrated in conjunction with the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.
Explore the map below, produced by the SPLC, which tracks each Confederate tribute site and pins recent efforts to remove them (see the list of the most recent efforts here). While the vast majority of these sites are in the South, a notable number are located elsewhere, including in California. Read the group’s complete findings and study methodology here.
Many of these public monuments, flags and names emerged around the turn of the 20th century in the decades after Reconstruction, as Southern leaders embraced and promoted the Lost Cause myth, a revisionist history that idealized and whitewashed the Confederacy, portraying its objectives as noble and just. This ethos accompanied the subsequent seven-decade era of brutal Jim Crow segregationist policies that gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy hate groups notorious for terrorizing African-Americans and other minority communities.
Another spike in Confederate iconography on public grounds occurred in the 1950s and 1960s in reaction to the growing momentum of the civil rights movement.