‘This is not just about symbols’: America’s reckoning over Confederate monuments

This story is part of Confederate Reckoning, a collaborative project of USA TODAY Network newsrooms across the South to critically examine the legacy of the Confederacy and its influence on systemic racism today.

Symbols of the Confederacy have long stood across the South.

But in the weeks since George Floyd died in police custody, those calling for an end to racism and police brutality have turned their fight for social justice toward toppling symbols of the white supremacist past. 

A statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was knocked to the ground in the Virginia city where he once governed the seceded states. In Montgomery, Alabama – still called the Cradle of the Confederacy on the city seal – the statue of Robert E. Lee was upended in front of a school named for the general. In New Orleans, where the anti-monument activist group Take Em Down NOLA publishes a running list of statues and street names to be removed, two statues were pushed off their pedestals and one of slave owner John McDonogh was thrown into the Mississippi River. 

Why Confederate monuments are reminders of racism

Demonstrators across the nation are demanding change by damaging and defacing Confederate statues in the wake of George Floyd’s death. (June 12)

AP

“It means the people of the city have risen up and taken power into their own hands,” said Quess Moore, one of the founders of Take Em Down NOLA. “If you were someone who enslaved Black people or was responsible for the genocide of Indigenous people, you are someone that should not be venerated.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that more than two dozen Confederate statues and monuments across the country have been moved or taken down since Floyd suffocated under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25. Some were vandalized or spray-painted with the letters BLM (Black Lives Matter). Others remain in the crosshairs.

The question of  whether Confederate symbols should remain in front of courthouses and city halls across the South is not a new one, but historians and activists say the once sporadic calls for removal now feel like a cohesive, self-sustaining force, in part due to the major institutions that have taken action themselves.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JULY 10: The statue of educator Sophie Bell Wright, whose father served in the Confederate Navy and Army, is covered with a white hood and spray-painted with BLM on July 10, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The statue, one of several vandalized this week, was one of many located throughout New Orleans that protestors say celebrate white supremacy. (Photo by Michael DeMocker/Getty Images)


NEW ORLEANS, LA – JULY 10: The statue of educator Sophie Bell Wright, whose father served in the Confederate Navy and Army, is covered with…
NEW ORLEANS, LA – JULY 10: The statue of educator Sophie Bell Wright, whose father served in the Confederate Navy and Army, is covered with a white hood and spray-painted with BLM on July 10, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The statue, one of several vandalized this week, was one of many located throughout New Orleans that protestors say celebrate white supremacy. (Photo by Michael DeMocker/Getty Images)
Michael DeMocker/Getty Images

At the University of Alabama, where former Gov. George Wallace once stood in the doorway to signal his commitment to “segregation forever,” the board of trustees approved the removal of three plaques to students who fought for the Confederacy. Meanwhile, the football team released a Black Lives Matter video, sending a clear message to its more conservative fans.

In Mississippi, where the state flag was altered in 1894 to feature the Confederate battle flag, the NCAA and  Southeastern Conference threatened to boycott the state unless it adopted a new design. Voters in November will decide on a new flag. 

“For African Americans, it’s been a long fight against Confederate symbolism,” said Gaines Foster, a historian at Louisiana State University.

‘The problem is real’

Foster said part of the urgency to remove symbols of oppression is because police encounters are now habitually recorded on smartphones, which allows non-Black citizens to witness profiling and police brutality they may not otherwise see. That access is pushing more Americans, particularly white Americans, to realize the ways in which these symbols of the past can be harmful.

“The monuments very much throughout their history are associated with white supremacy. And you can’t celebrate the Confederacy without celebrating the perpetuation of slavery and white supremacy,” Foster said. “I think at this moment, for both sides, the symbolic statement (of removing monuments) says, ‘OK, the problem is real.’ And for the white side, especially, it’s saying, ‘OK, the problem is real and we want to do something.’ ”

The calls to remove Confederate symbols can be seen as a continuation of a movement that became more urgent after a 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, pushed governments to examine what the monuments symbolize. That year, an estimated 48 monuments were removed, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The organization estimates more than 730 Confederate monuments are still standing, the majority in the South.

Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate chair of the history department at Duke University, where she teaches courses on the civil rights movement and Black lives, sees the current movement as a direct response to the 2017 rally, when President Donald Trump declined to decry the white nationalists who protested the removal of Charlottesville’s Lee statue. 


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Photo: Parker Michels-Boyce/AFP via Getty Images | Illustration: Ayrika Whitney/Tennessean

“The mainstreaming of white supremacist politics has made the statues seem not just objectionable, but dangerous. And when that happens, they have to come down,” Lentz-Smith said.

In 2017, 52% of voters said Confederate statues should remain standing, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll. This year, that same poll found that 44% are in favor of keeping them.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Whose Heritage Report, the majority of Confederate monuments were erected decades after the Civil War in the height of the Jim Crow era when lynchings and violent voter suppression tactics were common.

TOP: Lahahuia Hanks holds up a fist in front of the Confederate carving at Stone Mountain Park during a Black Lives Matter protest June 16 in Stone Mountain, Ga. The park features a Confederate memorial carving depicting Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. BELOW: Stone Mountain Park features a large Confederate memorial stone carving.
TOP: Lahahuia Hanks holds up a fist in front of the Confederate carving at Stone Mountain Park during a Black Lives Matter protest June 16 in Stone Mountain, Ga. The park features a Confederate memorial carving depicting Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. BELOW: Stone Mountain Park features a large Confederate memorial stone carving.
TOP: Lahahuia Hanks holds up a fist in front of the Confederate carving at Stone Mountain Park during a Black Lives Matter protest June 16 in Stone Mountain, Ga. The park features a Confederate memorial carving depicting Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. BELOW: Stone Mountain Park features a large Confederate memorial stone carving.
TOP, RIGHT: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images | LEFT: John Bazemore, AP

That violence is linked with monuments such as Georgia’s Stone Mountain. At the park, portraits of Lee, Davis and Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are etched into the mountainside. In 1915, the Ku Klux Klan met on the mountaintop and burned a cross while reorganizing the white supremacist terrorist group, said Stan Deaton, senior historian at the Georgia Historical Society. The monument was dedicated in 1970, in the midst of integration and lingering civil rights efforts.

“Stone Mountain is like a billboard, if you will,” Deaton said. “White Georgians in politics saw this as a way to give voice to the discontent against civil rights. It’s like giving the middle finger to the federal government.”

‘We’re in a moment of possibility’

And yet the scope of the current movement means not even a mountain is off-limits.

On July 4, about 200 members of an armed Black militia marched on the mountain and called for the entire display to be destroyed, something the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP has long requested.

As impossible as that request may seem, the current movement against white supremacy has made strides that previously seemed unattainable.

NASCAR will no longer allow Confederate flags to be flown at its events. In Mississippi, where the legislature voted to replace the flag, the move was supported by the majority-white Mississippi Baptist Convention.

Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration employees Willie Townsend, left, and Joe Brown, attach a Mississippi state flag to the harness before raising it over the Capitol grounds in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, June 30, 2020. The two men raised about 100 flags, provided by the Secretary of State's office, for people or organizations that purchased a state flag that flew over the grounds. Gov. Tate Reeves will sign a bill Tuesday evening retiring the last state flag with the Confederate battle emblem during a ceremony at the Governor's Mansion. Upon the governor signing the bill, the flag will lose its official status. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)


Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration employees Willie Townsend, left, and Joe Brown, attach a Mississippi state flag to the harness before raising it over…
Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration employees Willie Townsend, left, and Joe Brown, attach a Mississippi state flag to the harness before raising it over the Capitol grounds in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, June 30, 2020. The two men raised about 100 flags, provided by the Secretary of State’s office, for people or organizations that purchased a state flag that flew over the grounds. Gov. Tate Reeves will sign a bill Tuesday evening retiring the last state flag with the Confederate battle emblem during a ceremony at the Governor’s Mansion. Upon the governor signing the bill, the flag will lose its official status. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Rogelio V. Solis/AP

“Mississippi. Alabama. NASCAR. When you get those three making statements and moving away from the myth of the Lost Cause or Confederate nostalgia, you think, ‘Whoa, this might be a different time,’ ” Lentz-Smith said. “We don’t know what it means yet. It means we’re in a moment of possibility where we could potentially face, with honesty, pain and healing, the reality of what this country has been and didn’t cease to be in 1865.”

Lentz-Smith has seen firsthand the challenges of facing a deeply ingrained and painful history. Like many Southern colleges, Duke faced calls in recent years to rename buildings named for known white supremacists. In 2018, Duke opted to erase the name of Julian Carr, whose philanthropic efforts sustained the school in its early years, but whose well-known KKK membership could not be ignored.

And yet, Duke adds an interesting wrinkle to the conversation of how far efforts to de-memorialize white supremacists will go. Carr’s name has been erased, but the university is named for Winston Duke, who built a fortune while owning enslaved people.

Lentz-Smith stopped short of saying Duke’s name should be erased, but she said those who work and study there must have an honest dialogue about the university’s roots in oppression. 

“The history of white Americans building up wealth is so reliant on Black labor and the degradation of Black lives that there’s very little that remains unstained by that history,” Lentz-Smith said. “Yes, it’s true of Duke. But it’s true of most places. So the question is, what are the acts of reparation or atonement that actually have meaning and make a difference in contemporary life? 

“Duke, like a lot of places, is searching.”

Just as the statues removed in 2017 are linked with the rise of white nationalism, the monuments toppled this year will be inextricably tied to the rebellion against systemic racism and police brutality.

‘This is not just about symbols and statues’

In New Orleans, an empty 60-foot column still stands where Lee’s statue was removed in 2017. 

Take Em Down NOLA successfully fought for the removal of Lee that year. Two years earlier, the group held its first protest at the base of the statue in the wake of the  Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church massacre  in Charleston, South Carolina.

This year, a week after Floyd’s death, Take Em Down’s Moore led thousands past the column in a protest against police brutality.

Quess Moore, one of the founders of Take Em Down NOLA
“It’s about a culture of violence we’re trying to undo.”

“All these states commemorated themselves with warmongers,” Moore said. “This is not just about symbols and statues. It’s about a culture of violence we’re trying to undo.”

In a way, each vacant pedestal and changed name is its own kind of historical marker, a symbol of what used to be entwined with a story of why it is no longer. 

And with each statue removed, more space is created to tell a new story.

News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at taprice@gannett.com. Sign up for The American South newsletter.

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