Their membership might be dwindling, and their popular support seems to shrink by the day, but the guardians of America’s 700-plus Confederate monuments are mounting a serious defense — filing lawsuits and demanding control of statues slated for removal.
They, too, are launching a concerted offensive.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans and, in a quieter way, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the group that erected many of the monuments that are now the target of the biggest removal campaign in history, are pushing back by building new statues, buying land to house torn-down memorials, and airing radio and online ads seeking public support for their cause.
Across the South, more than 20 new monuments, ranging from small plaques to massive Confederate battle flags placed near major interstate highways for maximum visibility, have been installed on private property in the past few years, said Larry McCluney Jr., commander in chief of the Sons group.
Joshua Stover, a Sons leader in Selma, Ala., created Monuments Across Dixie to build tributes to Confederate soldiers, Gen. Robert E. Lee, and others. McCluney called the drive a response to “organizations that are tracking all our historical monuments so they can attack them or desecrate them.”
“I totally understand the public’s views against Confederate monuments,” said McCluney, a high school history teacher in Mississippi. “I truly understand how some people feel these are monuments to white supremacy. But for the descendants of thousands of men who died in the war, these monuments are the only headstone their families have. We have to learn from history good and bad. Right now, we’re just the low-hanging fruit of an eradication of American history.”
Nationwide, more than 60 Confederate monuments have been taken down this year, almost all of them dating from the turn of the 20th century, when hundreds of statues were erected to honor fallen husbands and fathers but also to assert white supremacy during a time when states passed Jim Crow laws enforcing separation of the races.
Most of the removals, whether by vote of local government or by activists taking matters into their own hands, have occurred in midsize or large cities. Protests against monuments took place this spring in dozens of small towns, but few of those structures have come down.
In places where monuments are being taken down, the controversies over their meaning and influence continue after they’re removed. Town councils, county commissions and countless Facebook groups argue about what to do with works of public art that stood outside courthouses, city halls and libraries in nearly 1,000 American localities.
Conflicts over monuments have been a constant in American history, dating to an attack in 1771 against a statue of King George III at the southern tip of Manhattan.
Most Confederate monuments were built by veterans groups, primarily between the 1890s and the 1910s, and many local governments now seek to return the statues to the groups that erected them. But in many cases, the organizations no longer exist.
Some monuments go back to the United Daughters of the Confederacy because the local chapter of the UDC insists on it — and because laws passed in recent years in eight Southern states protect monuments against local efforts to remove them.
But in some places, the Confederate groups offer elected officials a relatively easy way to dispose of — or to protect — their monument. In Parksley, Va., a town of 800 on the Eastern Shore, council members voted last month to sell their statue of a Confederate soldier to the Sons group for $1, with the proviso that the monument remain unchanged.
An inscription on the monument reads: “They fought for conscience sake and died for right.”
Critics in town said the sale was designed to buffer public officials from activists’ demand that they remove the statue.
“This monument is town property, and the effort to move it into private hands is a way to remove residents’ ability to demand change,” said Jay Ford, 37, who is leading a drive to raise $10,000 to offer the town a counterbid for the 30-foot-tall granite statue and the land on which it sits. Ford’s group would then build a monument to the area’s black and native residents, as well as a plaque providing historical context for the Confederate statue.
“These symbols set the tone and tell the story of a place,” Ford said. “We’re not insisting that the Confederate monument come down. We want to meet the community where they are. But we are trying to reclaim this space and make it more inclusive. What’s there now sends a message to people of color that they’re not welcome here.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans are happy to take possession of such monuments if the alternative is to tear them down, said Kennedy, 73, whose great-grandfather, John Wesley Kennedy, was a private in the Confederate army.
“We use our legal resources to defend the monuments as long as we can, and our fallback is to keep the monument in the state where it stood, on private property where it’s visible to the public,” Kennedy said. “We are not going to have some secret repository deep in the South where all the monuments will be hidden.”
But in most cases in which monuments revert to a nonprofit group, it’s the Daughters, not the Sons, that receives custody because the UDC built or paid for the structure in the first place.
In Shreveport, La., the Caddo Parish Commission last week reached an agreement with the UDC to build a box around the city’s Confederate monument to protect it from vandalism and then to remove the 40-ton structure from its prominent spot outside the parish courthouse and install it at a “place of honor” chosen by the Daughters — at taxpayers’ expense.
The UDC’s Shreveport chapter, which owns the monument, had sued the parish to regain control of the monument and press the government into paying for the move. The group issued a statement saying members were “saddened that our monument will be moved from the parish courthouse, but it will be going to a place of honor on private land and alongside graves of Confederate heroes to fulfill its purpose as a tombstone for soldiers from Caddo Parish who died on distant battlefields.”
Activists had sought the removal of the statue for years. Willie James, who is black, said that as a young teen walking downtown with his mother, “we would always stay on the sidewalk opposite the Caddo Parish Courthouse. . . . I thought at first it was because of the obvious: too many times individuals with white hoods and robes surrounded the structure.” But years later, James said, he learned that his mother was actually avoiding the statue, whose inscription pays tribute to “the men who so gallantly, nobly, and conscientiously defended the cause of 1861-65.”
Leaders of the Shreveport chapter did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did more than 30 UDC state and local chapter leaders across the South. UDC’s national headquarters also did not respond.
“They’ve chosen radio silence,” said Karen Cox, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.”
“The UDC has taken back a few monuments, but I don’t think they have the stomach for the fight,” Cox said. “It’s an aging organization. The Daughters have ceded their authority to the men’s groups.”
The UDC, founded in 1894, still receives annual payments from several states for maintenance of Confederate veterans’ graves. It still encourages members to learn and recite its Confederate Catechism, a compilation of the group’s basic beliefs, including this statement: “Slaves, for the most part, were faithful and devoted. Most slaves were usually ready and willing to serve their masters.”
Sons of Confederate Veterans leaders said they have maintained their membership while the UDC’s numbers have declined sharply. “The problem in many places is that the UDC chapters that owned the monuments have died out,” McCluney said.
But the Sons attribute the Daughters’ silence more to Southern tradition than to diminished capacity.
“They are ladies of the Old South,” Kennedy said, “and there’s an old saying that a lady’s name should only appear in the newspaper twice in her life — at her birth and at her funeral.”
Despite the organization’s public silence, many towns are turning to the UDC to take custody of monuments. In Loudoun County, Va., a second-ring suburb of Washington, supervisors unanimously voted this month to take down a Confederate statue and return it to the UDC.
“I don’t care what happens to this statue, as long as it never again sits on public property,” said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large). “I take this vote in the name of thousands of Loudoun citizens, black citizens who never had a voice and sometimes didn’t have a vote.”
In some towns, the Daughters have chosen not to get involved. In Luray, Va., 90 miles west of D.C., a group that organized on Facebook seeking to relocate the town’s two Confederate monuments has no objection to the Daughters taking control of a statue originally built by a now-defunct Confederate Memorial Association. But the Daughters don’t want to claim the monument, and the town attorney isn’t certain who owns it.
“We don’t want to see them destroyed,” said Chris Hurlbert, founder of the relocation advocacy group, who grew up near Luray and lives in New York City, where he works in advertising. “We do believe these statues stand for oppression and there’s something beautiful about destroying them, but the respectful thing would be to preserve them as history that’s important to some people. I believe they prop up white supremacy, but a lot of people in the area feel the statues represent the story of their ancestors, and that’s fair.”
The relocation group wants the more artistically interesting statue, which depicts a Confederate soldier looking tattered and downcast, moved to a museum, and the other piece, a mass-produced sculpture identical to hundreds of others around the country, put in a battlefield or cemetery.
A consensus on the statues’ fate does not seem close, both sides agree.
Even as such debates stretch on, the Sons are busy raising money to buy land, erect new monuments and fly enormous Confederate battle flags like the 30-foot-by-60-foot one that waved prominently over an intersection of two interstate highways in Tampa for the past decade. Last month, it was lowered because of threats to set it ablaze.
The Sons say they are undeterred.
“All that has been lost can be regained,” Kennedy said. “We’re not going away. Billy Bible and Joe Sixpack are going to hear our message. We’re going to find peaceful ways to put our finger in our enemies’ eye. We have to tell our story or else our enemies will tell theirs.”