ATLANTA — A national debate over the use of Confederate symbols continues to rage. But, what about the thousands of monuments scattered across the country?
Is it possible to remove monuments from grounds? Should they remain in place to serve as a centerpiece for dialogue? Is removing these monuments from the public landscape tantamount to rewriting history?
Stony Brook University Professor Robert Chase, who previously served as the Avery Research Center’s Public Historian for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, says “these monuments convey is an attempt to paper over what truly makes us comfortable-the history of slavery, a history of racial violence, Jim Crow, segregation, and the problem of racial inequalities that are national in scope and have a deep and long history.”
Below is a Q&A with Professor Chase.
There has been a lot of discussion recently about removing all Confederate monuments from public property. What should happen to these (presumably thousands of) monuments?
Confederate monuments owe their history to an ideological effort to restore Southern White pride and honor through the tradition of “The Lost Cause of the Confederacy,” which was a Reconstruction-era ideological tradition that seeks to renew a mythological sense of the Old South’s “white nobility” while simultaneously conducting racial violence to erect the Jim Crow-era “New South” (including segregation, lynching and murder of African Americans, the convict lease system, and voter intimidation and disenfranchisement).
Following the nation’s retreat from Reconstruction (1877), the South erected new memorials, parks, and statues to construct an ennobled, indeed mythological, romantic history of the Old South and the Confederacy that denied that slavery was inhumane and that secession was over slavery and replaced instead with its own version of history that maintained that the Civil War was over “states rights” and that African Americans were racially inferior, thus making the Jim Crow South and its laws as just.
In this false and constructed historical narrative, Reconstruction is depicted as a grave effort of misrule rather than as an era of providing civil rights, education, and economic and political opportunity to a generation of former slaves. In films such as Birth of Nation (1915), African Americans are falsely depicted as violent defilers of women while the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue to save White womanly virtue and ennobled White society.
The monuments that we have to the Confederacy were erected during this effort to create national union in return for accepting the Confederate noble lost cause heritage as a piece of American heritage.
To erase this false history would be a massive undertaking, but so was the erection of the lost cause narrative in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps what might be more valuable would be an emphasis on learning our nation’s history of racial struggle and violence by increasing our humanities and history programs by establishing teach-ins, increasing teacher salaries and educational opportunities so that we might place these memorials in their proper historical context as an ideological effort to bring the South back into the Union in exchange for the national embrace of the “Lost Cause” and the general acceptance of a Jim Crow South. A good book on this topic is David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.
Moreover, Dr. Chad Williams of Brandeis University created the #Charlestonsyllabus that outlines a comprehensive reading list to better educate ourselves and our students about the history and the issues that frame the recent tragedy. We should promote our nation’s history and its most difficult and trying moments and not just simply erase it. But removing the Confederate flag from state grounds is not erasing history, it is instead acknowledging that the symbolism of that flag is a part of our history that we must understand but one which should give us no pride.
Does removing monuments mean we are ignoring history or attempting to downplay the parts of history that make us uncomfortable?
No, not at all. In fact, what these monuments convey is an attempt to paper over what truly makes us comfortable-the history of slavery, a history of racial violence, Jim Crow, segregation, and the problem of racial inequalities that are national in scope and have a deep and long history.
This moment presents a genuine opportunity to have a national dialogue on this history and to better promote our nation’s understanding of its past history of racial violence to better understand our current moment of racial inequality (health, wealth, mass incarceration, policing, education). The history that makes us comfortable is the notion that the Confederate flag is about heritage, but the uncomfortable part is that the history of the Confederate flag is also about treason, segregation, lynching, convict lease system, Jim Crow, resistance to civil rights, and racial violence.
Its important to remember that when South Carolina became the first state in the nation to fly the Confederate flag at its state capitol, it did so at the centennial of the start of the Civil War. But it was more than the commemoration of history on the minds of its political leaders. It also was the height of “Massive Resistance,” the declaration by southern political leaders and the Ku Klux Klan alike, to openly and definitely resist racial integration and the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools.
The Confederate flag is therefore as much, if not more, about resistance to civil rights than it is about heritage.
What about placing monuments of Civil Rights leaders alongside Confederate monuments as a means of telling history and the people who impacted it?
To provide a public space for a counter-narrative of resistance, Charleston should erect a monument to slavery as a transatlantic holocaust, as it was the nation’s greatest slave port during the slave trade (over 40 percent of the 12-to-15 million enslaved Africans traded to North America arrived first in Charleston), and it should erect a second monument commemorating Black resistance to the racial oppression of both slavery and Jim Crow, as it is home to a long history of the Civil Rights Movement. Sullivan’s Island in Charleston serves as the inverse and perverse Ellis Island for thousands of enslaved Africans introducing them to not to freedom and opportunity but to bondage and slave labor, and it should be commemorated as such. Yet there is no monument to slavery nor the slave trade in Charleston.
Less than two miles south of the AME church lies the Confederate war memorial, erected in 1932 during the Great Depression at the cost of $100,000 (over $1 million in current valuation). The memorial stands in commemoration of the “defenders” of Charleston and Fort Sumter during the Civil War. Why a memorial to the veterans of the confederacy but none to slavery’s victims?
While there is a national memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C., there are a host of civil rights heroes in local spaces that earn no memorial. This would be an opportunity to offer new memorials to Black resistance, social justice, and civil rights.
Why do you think Confederate symbols, in particular the battle flag, remain so prominent 150 years after the Civil War and ~50 years after the Civil Rights Movement?
Following the retreat from Reconstruction, there was a concerted ideological effort to promote Confederate symbols as an ideological effort to sanctify White privilege and power and to rewrite the history of Reconstruction as a dangerous and intrusive era of federal power rather than as the “second American revolution,” as many radical republicans and freed people referred to it at the time.
Celebrating Confederate symbols as “heritage and not hate” allows the nation, and southerners in particular, to celebrate familial heritage while ignoring the historical truth of the racial violence behind that heritage that stretches all the way from slavery to Jim Crow to the massive resistance effort against the civil rights movement.
The Confederate flag symbolizes a national reunion, but it was a reunion based on White citizenship and priviledge that attempted to forget and dismiss the racial history that bound the nation to slavery and racial inequalities that continue today.
What role do/should museums play in this debate? Should they be advocating for a particular course of action?
Museums and historians have a critical role to play in this national dialogue. This is an opportunity for widespread teach-ins and the voices of historians to be heard. Our public spaces are not just historical sites of the past, but they are part of our living memory and serve as the very foundation of our ideological constructions of who we are as a nation today.
As President Barack Obama powerfully reminded us during his eulogy for Reverend Pinckney: “History can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past — how to break the cycle.”
Erecting historical markers and memorials of both slavery and Black resistance would be the first step in breaking the cycle of the past. The second step would be a series of policy decisions at both the federal and state levels that would take seriously the racial inequalities that exist in the arenas of education, pay, health, mass incarceration, and policing.
Anything else you would like to add?
We need to understand Dylan Roof’s actions as terrorism that is both domestic and global. His inspiration was the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, but he also saw himself as part of an imperiled White class that stretches from the American South to South Africa. He identified as much with European White terrorists as the Ku Klux Klan.
Moreover, we must understand that the choice of a Black church is also connected to the historical suppression of black-controlled churches and religion as a response to black resistance. When the civil rights movement demanded an end to the Jim Crow South, the response from white terrorists was to bomb over 300 black churches during the 1960s — the most famous of which was the nightmare bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young girls only three weeks after Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. During the Freedom Summer of 1964, a church burned almost every other day in Mississippi. Perhaps it was these historic examples of violence against black churches during moments of resistance to racial oppression that guided Roof’s fateful and terrible act.
Finally, we must understand Dylan Roof’s murder as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. To begin his Charleston massacre, the confessed murderer Dylann Storm Roof coldly told his victims the cause that animated his deadly violence. “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country,” Roof exclaimed, “and you have to go.”
Each of these frightful exclamations — the fear of miscegenation (interracial sex), the fear of black empowerment and the threat of racial genocide — echo a history that lives on today in a visceral lineage of white domestic terrorism. By drawing on the notion of miscegenation and concocted fears of black male sexuality, the murderer evoked the same cultural paranoia that animated nearly a century of lynching in the United States.