USA divided over fate of Confederate statues

Hanging on: Confederate General Robert E. Lee leaves the University of Texas. © Getty

This week, more monuments to Confederate leaders in America have been removed in the dead of night. The violence in Charlottesville triggered the stark debate about US history. Is this good?

Anyone walking through the University of Texas campus late on Sunday night would have witnessed some unusual activity. Amid a crowd of police officers and bystanders, a crew was working quickly to take the down the statues of prominent Confederate figures. By Monday, they were gone.

Monuments like these have been a live political issue since the Charleston church shooting in 2015, which was committed by a Confederate-loving racist. The controversy heated up two weeks ago: a protest against the planned removal of a Confederate general’s statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned into a violent white supremacist rally. One counter-protester died.

Both events highlighted the uncomfortable links between Confederate history, slavery and white supremacy. The Charlottesville rally has launched a national debate about how Americans view their history. Local authorities from Kentucky to New York have quietly removed contentious monuments, and others are planning to do the same.

Elsewhere, citizens have taken matters into their own hands. Activists in Durham, North Carolina toppled a monument without official permission. A man in Houston was caught trying to bomb one. And in Portsmouth, Virginia, the city council is due to consider a petition to replace a Confederate statue with one of rapper Missy Elliott.

But according to a reputable new survey, these protesters are in the minority. An opinion poll by Reuters/Ipsos suggests that 54% of American adults want these monuments to stay in place; only 27% are in favour of removing them.

Some argue that the Confederacy was about more than slavery: it stood for Southern valour and the autonomy of states, and should be honoured as such. President Trump seemed to endorse this viewpoint when he tweeted that he was sad to see “our beautiful statues” go.

Historians generally believe that the defence of slavery was central to the Confederate cause. However, among those who accept this, there are some who still believe that the monuments should be left as a reminder of past wrongs.

Should they be retained?

History in the making

Absolutely not, say some. The Confederacy was founded on deeply racist ideas. Statues which honour its generals and its politicians glorify those ideas. America is supposed to have rejected slavery 150 years ago. These monuments have no place in modern society; they should be destroyed.

That is extreme, reply others. The most dangerous thing a society can do is to erase bits of its history — that is often how nasty ideologies start. For balance, we could add information plaques to these monuments, or put up more statues of civil rights heroes. But the Confederate leaders should be left for all to see.

You Decide

  1. Do you agree with the removal of Confederate monuments?
  2. What is the function of a statue?

Activities

  1. Who would you most like to see commemorated with a statue in your neighbourhood? Write a letter to your local government, explaining your choice.
  2. As a class, spend the next week cataloging as many political symbols in your neighbourhood as possible. (First define what counts as a political symbol: statues? plaques? place names?) Then discuss whether any of them should be removed.

Some People Say...

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

— William Faulkner

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Confederate statues may commemorate one side of the American civil war, but they were actually put up much later. The vast majority were erected around the turn of the 20th century, when the racist Jim Crow laws were being established, or during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. In other words, they mostly date from periods of great upheaval in race relations.
What do we not know?
How many places commemorate Confederate leaders. The government does not keep a tally. In a 2016 report, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 1,503 “Confederate place names and other symbols in public places”. Unsurprisingly, the majority were in the South, but they were found in 31 states. The organization admits that its research is “far from comprehensive”.

Word Watch

Charleston church shooting
On June 17th 2015, 21-year-old Dylann Roof shot nine African-Americans dead in a church in South Carolina. Online photos showed him posing with the Confederate battle flag.
Confederate general
The general in question is Robert E. Lee, who had become the supreme commander of the Confederate army by the war’s end. He is one of the most widely commemorated Confederate figures — his statue was one of those removed from the University of Texas.
Without official permission
Four people have been arrested and charged. North Carolina has very strict laws against the removal of public monuments.
Missy Elliott
The best-selling female rap album artist in history, and a Portsmouth, Virginia native.
54%
In a similar Marist poll conducted last week, this figure was 62%. Intriguingly, 44% of African-Americans agreed.
The autonomy of states
It is true that the civil war was largely shaped by a dispute over the balance of power between state and federal authorities. However, this was in turn fuelled by disagreement over whether states had the right to preserve slavery.

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