Ahistoric Confederate statues rooted in revisionism
This letter to the editor is a response to another, titled “Taking down statues will remove history.” That letter was a response to an Aug. 23 column titled “Black Lives Matter protest for ‘Spirit of the Confederacy’ to be broken.”
A recent letter to the editor suggested that removing Confederate memorials risks erasing history. This misunderstands the history of the statues and misrepresents the relationship between culture and politics.
White supremacy has never been a fringe ideology in the United States. Confederate monuments commemorate a war fought to create a slaveholding republic founded, according to Confederate leadership, “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.”
Had these statues been erected in 1861, they almost certainly would have explicitly memorialized the foundational racial ideology of the Confederacy.
But these statues were not erected during or immediately after the war. Instead, they were erected during an era in which white Americans, north and south, reconciled their differences through a national program of white supremacy.
The statues are not neutral markers of historical facts. Like many aspects of material culture in public spaces, Confederate statues served a political purpose. Erected during the era of Jim Crow, the statues helped create a cultural landscape supportive of the legal and social structure of racial segregation.
The statues stood in public spaces as physical manifestations of white supremacy. They stood outside courthouses where black people failed to find justice. They stood outside polling places as literacy tests and poll taxes purged black citizens from voter registration rolls.
And they did so under the direction of powerful cultural groups and with the backing of local governments.
The Spirit of the Confederacy statue in Houston, for instance, was dedicated in 1908 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Far from a fringe group, the UDC’s efforts to memorialize the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War had a powerful impact. Along with the many statues the group funded and erected, the UDC shaped the narrative of the Civil War in popular textbooks, rejecting any interpretation of the war that was “unjust to the South.”
The UDC’s interpretation of the Civil War was bolstered in academics by Columbia University historian William A. Dunning and his students, whose interpretation of Reconstruction held that freed people were unfit for voting and holding office, a narrative that helped legitimate Ku Klux Klan terrorism as a necessary reaction to emancipation.
In 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois, commenting on Dunning’s interpretation and the political ramifications of scholarship and education, wrote that “one fact and one alone explains the attitude of most recent writers toward Reconstruction: they cannot conceive Negroes as men.”
In other words, the UDC and the Dunning school perpetuated interpretations of history that justified slavery, KKK violence and white supremacy. Statues erected by groups that promoted this version of history cannot be separated from the racial ideology they supported.
During the 1960s, historians really began to challenge the Dunning school’s interpretation of slavery and Reconstruction. This scholarship fought hard against the preferred narratives of cultural groups like the UDC, and it only slowly trickled into textbooks and popular narratives of the Civil War.
Indeed, contrary to the author’s suggestion that removing these statues stifles debate, the movement is in many ways the culmination of more than 50 years of critical historical research, debate and public activism that has worked to dismantle the Lost Cause myth of the Confederacy.
The current desire among many to remove these monuments reflects not an effort to ignore the bad parts of history. Quite the opposite, it emerges from a drawn-out and at times painful process of facing the ugly parts of our history. It emerges from a recognition of the purpose those statues served for the groups that erected them, namely to symbolize a racial order.
That the statues have now become rallying points for a resurgence of mainstream white supremacy only confirms that these statues served that purpose. They stood silently in public spaces, waiting to lend their weight when racist ideologies needed an anchor.
Does the removal of statues eliminate racism? No. But white supremacist ideologies should no longer command a physical presence in our public spaces.
A critical engagement with history would recognize that culture shifts as a society’s values and needs shift. A segregated society needed memorials that justified its racial framework. A society striving for inclusion needs a different cultural landscape.
History is the process of change over time. Denying that change by demanding cultural landmarks remains static is more ahistorical than removing a few statues.
Keith McCall is Ph.D. candidate of history at Rice University and a former Houstonian.