Confederate statues are coming down across the country as Americans grapple with national conversations about racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman.
By the weekend of June 19 (Juneteenth), when Americans celebrate the emancipation of the last slaves in 1865, calls for systemic change in policing now also encompass the 1,747 monuments, place names and other public symbols that honor the Confederacy — including cemeteries, portraits and the names of U.S. Army installations.
Controversies surrounding Confederate monuments aren’t new, but this time, something feels different. A new Quinnipiac University poll even found that a slim but significant majority of Americans, 52%, now support removing Confederate statues.
In response, President Trump announced Tuesday that he plans to issue an executive order to “make the cities guard their monuments” against the specter of a left-wing mob. The order would be in keeping with Mr. Trump’s poor track record on race, but it would also strip state and municipal governments of the chance to address this moment in their own way.
In the past and at present, conservatives like Mr. Trump have argued against removing Confederate statues, claiming that it “erases” the country’s history. But taking down statues that venerate white supremacists is not at all the same thing as burning books. The facts of American history are unchangeable, but not every piece of history deserves a venerable monument in the public square.
As historian Stephanie McCurry recently wrote, the Confederacy was “an explicitly white-supremacist, pro-slavery, and antidemocratic nation-state, dedicated to the principle that all men are not created equal.” To defend Confederate statues today also ignores that undeniably wicked legacy and, indeed, makes one a party to it.
The claim that removing Confederate monuments erases American history fails to grasp an important distinction between statues in places of public prominence and the stories we tell ourselves about the past. Simply put, regardless of which statues are placed upon pedestals, the historical record — and how it’s taught — is entirely separate.
As Annette Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian of law at Harvard, explained in a recent interview, “History will still be taught. We will know who Robert E. Lee was. Who Jefferson Davis was. […] There are far more dangerous threats to history. Defunding the humanities, cutting history classes and departments. Those are the real threats to history.”
Those threats abound, but Ms. Gordon-Reed’s broader point is that America’s people — and its historians in particular — are not so forgetful and ignorant as reactionary arguments make them out to be. Indeed, calls for removal do not mean that Confederate statues will be thrown down Orwell’s memory hole.
History is not so malleable.
It’s no small irony, then, that the Trump administration has time and again expressed revisionist attitudes toward history. In mid-May, for example, when CBS’ Catherine Herridge asked Attorney General William Barr to explain how historians will describe his decision to dismiss all charges against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Mr. Barr sidestepped the question and quipped, “Well, history is written by the winners, so it largely depends on who’s writing the history.”
Mr. Barr’s comments reveal the Trump administration’s hypocrisy while also clarifying a broader point: If history was written by the winners, then why on Earth would the winners permit statues of Confederate losers to stand in public squares? In reality, it is historians (winners in their own right but also professional scholars equipped to examine the past) who write histories — and, as I’m sure all historians can attest, having Confederate statues in places of public prominence is decidedly not a prerequisite for the writing process.
The question of what statues communities should celebrate and commemorate in public spaces — often by literally putting people on pedestals — is a less complicated question. Confederate statues represent men who fought to tear the Union asunder by maintaining a racialized caste system in which countless men and women were denied the very rights declared unalienable in the American founding.
What is more, many of these statues were constructed alongside Jim Crow laws and civil rights tensions as monuments to white supremacy. This is a horrific fact of our history, but it is recent history: older African-Americans can still recall their grandparents’ firsthand accounts of slavery, descendants of slave ship survivors are still sharing their ancestors’ stories.
History, which we are prone to think of as the past, is ever-present with us today; as James Baldwin wrote, “people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”
Today, then, we are faced with the challenge of reimagining how our history should be commemorated in public spaces. Crucially, it’s left to communities to decide which historical figures to celebrate: No statue, once erected, is entitled to stand forever.
Rather than upholding statues that honor the failed Confederacy’s racism, today citizens can draw from history to design new monuments that celebrate the black community’s brilliance and resilience. Communities responding to this moment will make history, I only hope they do for the right reasons.
• Jacob Bruggeman is a current graduate student in history at the University of Cambridge, an incoming Ph.D. student in history at Johns Hopkins University, and a contributor at Young Voices. You can follow him on Twitter @jacob_bruggeman.
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Confederate statues in jeopardy as Mississippi counties put ‘cancel culture’ to vote
GULFPORT, Miss. — Tempers flared and guns were drawn in a faceoff in the courthouse square over Black Lives Matter, ancestry and the fate of a 100-plus-year-old statue memorializing Confederate war dead that carries the inscription “Lest We Forget.” Yet this wasn’t a mob spontaneously tearing down statues linked to the Confederacy or otherwise deemed…
GULFPORT, Miss. — Tempers flared and guns were drawn in a faceoff in the courthouse square over Black Lives Matter, ancestry and the fate of a 100-plus-year-old statue memorializing Confederate war dead that carries the inscription “Lest We Forget.”
Yet this wasn’t a mob spontaneously tearing down statues linked to the Confederacy or otherwise deemed offensive, which has become almost routine in cities across the U.S.
In Mississippi, individual bronzed Confederate sentries have spent decades standing mute watch over the county courthouse in some 50 of the state’s counties. But the process has been more genteel despite the gunplay in Gulfport last week, with county boards of supervisors putting “cancel culture” to a vote.
Indeed, public opinion has managed to accomplish what unconditional surrender to the Union Army seemed unable to: remove the Confederate soldiers from public life. That is the goal of activists in Harrison County on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast who led Thursday’s rally urging elected officials to vote the statue down.
“We can come together as people, or we can perish as fools,” said the Rev. John Whitfield of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, addressing a crowd of some 40 people in the courthouse square, nearly evenly split between supporters and opponents.
“Stop trying to win a war the South lost,” said Mr. Whitfield, addressing statue supporters. “This statue’s purpose is intimidation, and to send a message to African Americans that they are not welcome, and sends a signal that justice is not available to all races that come before this court.”
Signs featuring a black fist or a Confederate flag were mixed around the base of the statue, erected in 1911. Several White men, some armed and some wearing bulletproof vests, stood alongside a Black protester carrying an assault rifle.
The only law enforcement official in sight was Bill Wright, a courthouse security guard.
Jeffrey Hulum III, an Army veteran and chief executive of a local nonprofit, raised his voice as he looked at the lines of people he said were “flanking and intimidating” him.
Mr. Hulum declared, “This is not a symbol of Jesus Christ; it’s hatred.”
He then spun around and pulled a handgun from his back waistband, and he and Mr. Whitfield walked quietly back to their cars.
Mr. Hulum and his cohorts would like Harrison County to follow an example set by several Mississippi counties. Almost all of the votes came after the state Legislature voted in June to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state’s banner, the last such symbol still in use among U.S. states.
“We’re trying to do it the right way. We don’t want anybody here looting or burning anything,” Mr. Hulum said.
In this summer of rage against statues, ignited by the May 25 death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, at least five Mississippi counties — Bolivar, Leflore, Lowndes, Noxubee and Washington — have voted to remove their Confederate courthouse statues.
To be sure, not all elected officials in Mississippi think the same way. In at least three counties, the boards of supervisors voted to keep the statues. The stay vote was unanimous in Lafayette County. The most famous Confederate statue of all — the one that looms in the fiction of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County — stands in downtown Oxford.
A similar butternut sentry that stood on the Ole Miss campus, on the other hand, has been banished to a cemetery in a remote corner.
“I think its civic infamy outweighs its historical and literary significance,” said Jay Watson, a professor at Ole Miss and Faulkner scholar. “And for me, that main significance is the harm they still do.”
Mr. Watson recalled a 1964 incident near Philadelphia where three civil rights workers were killed. The Neshoba County courthouse there witnessed the 2005 conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for his role in those slayings, but the Neshoba supervisors voted to keep the Confederate statue outside it.
“I grew up in Athens, Georgia, and I think the Confederate statue is just a part of your background when you grow up in the Deep South,” Mr. Watson said. “And I think until you hear the stories from people about how wounded they are at the sight of them and what they represent — and I first heard it in Oxford — that’s when you realize they don’t belong here or on this campus.”
Mr. Watson noted that Oxford’s statue, like most others in Mississippi, was not put up by those who fought in the Civil War. Instead, the statues were usually erected decades later by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
In other words, the statues that were erected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflect “Lost Cause” romanticism that was engulfing the Deep South and which, according to those favoring removal, was intended to obscure the Confederacy’s chief purpose of maintaining slavery.
A massive monument behind the state capital in Jackson was erected in 1917 by the mothers, wives, daughters and sisters of the Confederacy, which features a female figure hovering over a dying soldier.
The UDC did not respond to a request for comment.
In June, the group’s Loudoun County chapter asked to take back the Confederate monument it had erected there in 1908.
It certainly represents that to Mr. Hulum, whose Extend a Hand Help a Friend nonprofit serves free meals to senior citizens.
He and Mr. Whitfield put the blame squarely on Harrison County’s Board of Supervisors for failing even to act on their demands. Mr. Whitfield has vowed to picket their homes if they do not put the issue to a vote.
“It keeps getting pushed back, but they need to take a vote on it. Don’t just wait,” Mr. Hulum said.
The five supervisors did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails from The Washington Times asking about the topic. Board President Connie Rockco is a declared candidate for tax assessor in November, and Mr. Hulum accused her of trying to delay a vote until after the election.
As Mr. Hulum noted, the consortium that wants Harrison County’s Confederate statue removed is following the law. In 2004, the legislature ruled that no “war monument may be relocated, removed, altered, renamed or rededicated,” but it does allow the governing body to move a statue to a more “suitable” or “appropriate” place.
Civic unrest is sure to follow if the calls for removal are not heeded, Mr. Whitfield said.
“We are asking that it be removed before someone comes and defaces it or tears it down,” he said at the rally. “If justice cannot be found, you should not expect people to abide by the laws in Harrison or the other counties in Mississippi.”
His remarks drew vocal rebukes from some White pro-monument demonstrators. Many of the Whites who showed up armed declined to give their names but said they were members of the Southern Defense Force and were “neutral” on the monument.
“We’re just here in case something goes wrong,” the militia leader said.
At one point, an immense pro-monument demonstrator sitting at its base collapsed suddenly in a heap, and Mr. Hulum sprang to his assistance, helping him sit up and providing water to clean his face and arms.
Some counties have found other solutions. In Lauderdale County, supervisors voted to keep the statue but did so while noting the courthouse is to be converted into a history museum and thus the location is appropriate.
Forrest County will put the issue before voters in November; in Lee County, there is a move similar to that in Harrison County urging the removal.
“It’s different around Mississippi,” Mr. Hulum said. “Up in Lee County, they’ll call you the n-word to your face, whereas around Gulfport they do it with housing and job opportunities and the like.”
More broadly, Americans are divided on whether Confederate statues should come down. Although a large majority of Black Americans favor their removal, along with those of statues of presidents who owned slaves such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, White Americans are less certain, according to a YouGov/Economist poll taken in June.
When asked about the removal of Confederate statues, 41% of Americans overall said they approved, 39% said they disapproved and 20% said they had no opinion on the issue.
The poll found that 45% overall saw the statues as symbols of “Southern pride” and 34% as racist.
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119 Confederate statues removed since George Floyd died
As the Black Lives Matter movement gained steam, so did the push to remove Confederate monuments, with more memorials having been taken down since George Floyd’s death than in the past three years combined. Across the U.S., 119 Confederate statues and monuments have been removed since the end of May. In 2017, 55 were removed,…
As the Black Lives Matter movement gained steam, so did the push to remove Confederate monuments, with more memorials having been taken down since George Floyd’s death than in the past three years combined.
Across the U.S., 119 Confederate statues and monuments have been removed since the end of May. In 2017, 55 were removed, while 34 were taken down in 2018 and 21 in 2019, according to a new study.
California has one Confederate monument left and has removed 91% of the offending memorials in the state, according to an analysis by BeenVerified, a public records search service.
Of the states that had at least 10 Confederate symbols, California and Maryland removed the most. Maryland removed 79%, followed by Oklahoma (39%), Florida (30%) and the District of Columbia (25%).
“The removal of these Confederate symbols coincides with years of growth in support of racial justice and the BLM movement,” said Brian Ross, the senior data analyst for BeenVerified, which completed a study of the removals.
BeenVerified used 2019 data from the Southern Poverty Law Center and 2020 media reports to calculate the removals.
More than 1,650 Confederate monuments and symbols, which include the Confederate flag, remain in place.
South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama have removed the fewest Confederate memorials.
“The country seems to have reached a tipping point of self-examination, and one of the most visible symbols of the history of inequality and injustice against Black Americans are the Confederate monuments dotting the cities, towns and municipalities throughout the United States,” Mr. Ross said.
The two Confederate historic figures with the most removals this year have been Robert E. Lee, who served as commander, and Jefferson Davis, who served as the president.
The death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in the custody of Minneapolis police, sparked racial justice demonstrations and growing calls to take down Confederate statues and other memorials.
The fervor led protesters to deface and destroy not just memorials linked to the Confederacy but also statues of abolitionists who fought to end slavery, including Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Several statues of Christopher Columbus also have been targeted.
The BeenVerified analysis counted only Confederate memorials, including symbols such as the rebel flag, which were removed by cities or by protesters. Statues of other figures such as Columbus were not included.
Public polling on the issue has been mixed.
A majority of voters, 58%, in a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll released in June said the memorials should stay. Days earlier, though, another poll by Quinnipiac University showed that a majority, 52%, wanted to see them taken down from public spaces.
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Push to remove Confederate battle star from Mississippi state flag renewed
Support to change the Mississippi state flag appeared to build this week, as religious representatives and Democratic lawmakers pushed for the legislature to act. At present, Mississippi’s flag contains what is widely regarded as a Confederate battle star, which opponents say is an everyday reminder of the state’s racist past. With Confederate monuments toppling across…
Support to change the Mississippi state flag appeared to build this week, as religious representatives and Democratic lawmakers pushed for the legislature to act.
At present, Mississippi’s flag contains what is widely regarded as a Confederate battle star, which opponents say is an everyday reminder of the state’s racist past. With Confederate monuments toppling across the South, and many American cities gripped with protests over the death of an unarmed black man in police custody, the time for a change is propitious, leaders say.
This week members of Working Together Mississippi, an interfaith organization, held a press conference on the steps of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Jackson, with representatives from Jewish and Protestant denominations joining Catholic figures in a call for the legislature to approve a change.
“It is time,” Bishop Brian Seage of Mississippi’s Episcopal Diocese said at the rally. “It is time for a new flag that truly represents us all. We call for our legislative leaders to act now.”
“As the modern lynchings of black people by police have risen to the forefront of the national consciousness, we can no longer claim that this issue is merely one of historical significance,” noted Rober Glazer, a member of Jackson’s Jewish community at the event. “To be complacent on this issue is to be complicit.”
The Southern Baptist Convention, which is Mississippi’s largest religious group with more than 1 million estimated members, did not have a representative at the Jackson event. In 2016, however, the group voted to stop flying the flag and urged others to discontinue its use “as an act of solidarity of the whole Body of Christ, including our African-American brothers and sisters.”
Mississippians last voted on the flag in 2001 and voters by a 2-to-1 margin supported the current design, but a movement to change it is has simmered ever since. That push was given renewed prominence this month when George Floyd died while handcuffed and pinned to the street by former Minneapolis cops, an incident that precipitated demonstrations that sometimes spilled into rioting across the U.S.
Since that 2001 vote, a series of Republican governors and legislative majorities have insisted the flag should only be changed as a result of a statewide vote, and current GOP Gov. Tate Reeves had adopted that same position this week when repeatedly pressed about the flag issue at press conferences.
But Democrats in the Mississippi House are moving to force a legislative vote in the current session. However, Democratic Rep. Robert Johnson made it clear the current proposal would not specify a replacement and instead simply seeks to remove the Confederate symbol.
“The legislature in 1894 adopted this flag,” Mr. Johnson told The Clarion-Ledger prior to an appearance on CNN Thursday. “The legislature in 2020 needs to take it down.”
It’s unclear how much Republican support the measure would enjoy in the legislature, although indications are that it is growing. The Republican speaker of the house, Philip Gunn, is on record as supporting changing the flag.
“It is indeed a hopeful sign that a multiracial bipartisan effort in the state legislature to change the current flag has commenced, and we encourage all Mississippians of good conscience to contact their legislators and voice their support for change, progress, and justice,” Melissa Garriga, a board member of the Mississippi Rising Coalition which is dedicated in part to abolishing the current state flag, said in an email to The Washington Times.
It is not clear what flag Mississippi would approve should the current one be rejected. One commonly referenced option is the so-called Stennis Flag, a large blue star circled by smaller blue stars and designed by Laurin Stennis, the granddaughter of an arch segregationist, the late Sen. John C. Stennis.
The Mississippi Rising Coalition has not thrown its support behind any specific alternative.
“We continue to firmly believe the State of Mississippi should abolish the current state flag like the constitution abolished slavery,” Ms. Garriga said. “We also strongly believe the process in which Mississippi chooses the next state flag should be inclusive and center our Black and indigenous communities in the design and selection process.”
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