One of the first cases I reported as a journalist was that of Cory Maye, a black Mississippi man who had been convicted and sentenced to die for killing a white cop during a botched drug raid on Maye’s home. Maye wasn’t a drug dealer, claimed he didn’t know that the raiding cops were police, and said he shot the officer in self-defense. The case was racially charged. When I visited the town of Prentiss, I found that the community split down racial lines. White people overwhelmingly wanted Maye to be executed; black people overwhelmingly thought he was innocent, that he was doing what most Mississippians believed he had every right to do — defend his home and his family from intruders.
The incident took place in Jefferson Davis County, Miss., which is of course named for the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. It’s a part of the country where race was still a suffocating part of everyday life, where black kids and white kids went to separate schools (black kids went to the public school, white kids went to one of the “academies” set up so that white kids didn’t have to go to school with black kids), and where even the police tended to be segregated (the county sheriff and his deputies tended to be black, the town police chief and most of the town police force were white).
When Maye finally got a hearing on his case in 2007, it was in the town of Poplarville in Pearl River County. I went to the hearing. I remember walking to the courthouse for that hearing — one in which a black man stood accused of killing a white police officer in a case rife with racial tension — and being struck that outside that courthouse, there was a monument to Confederate soldiers.
And it isn’t just Jefferson Davis County or Pearl River County. Most counties in Mississippi have Confederate monuments outside or near their courthouses. In Brooksville in Noxubee County, a Confederate soldier stands along the railroad tracks that separate the white part of town from the black, almost as if to guard against integration. I’ve since reported numerous stories about injustices in the South, many of which involved racial bias, and in nearly every instance, the criminal-justice system that adjudicated those cases did so in courtrooms or police departments or district attorney’s offices or city halls that stand in the shadow of taxpayer-funded monuments celebrating the fight to keep black people as slaves.
Perhaps we’re too accustomed to it to notice the absurdity, but it is unquestionably absurd: Each day, thousands of black, shackled defendants appear before judges in courthouses guarded by memorials to a cause that believed those defendants’ ancestors were little more than livestock. The symbolism is inescapable. If a totalitarian country were to try members of an oppressed minority in a courtroom flanked by monuments to those who did the oppressing, we’d rightly call them show trials. Yet we’ve been doing exactly this in wide swaths of the South for more than a century.
Supporters of keeping Confederate monuments in place argue that they’re not about celebrating slavery or oppression, but about acknowledging heritage and the past. They argue that to remove the monuments is an attempt to rewrite history. But that isn’t quite right. No one is suggesting we remove the Confederate army from the history of Bull Run or Gettysburg. The objection is to the monuments and memorials that celebrate or glorify the Confederacy, or that explicitly honor those most known for fighting to keep black people from obtaining the legal rights of citizens. The Battle of Liberty Place monument that was recently removed from New Orleans amid much controversy is a good example. This was literally a monument to a bloody Reconstruction-era rebellion against the state government staged by a white supremacist group. It wasn’t erected after the Civil War, but in 1891, as Reconstruction ended and Louisiana was actively oppressing, terrorizing and disenfranchising black people. The city added a plaque celebrating white supremacy in 1932, nearly 70 years after the Civil War and nearly 60 years after the battle itself.
In fact, the “history and heritage” argument is a hard sell for a lot of the Confederate monuments and memorials. A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center last year found 109 schools named after Confederate figures, 27 of which have majority black student populations. Of the 109, more than a third — 39 — were built between 1950 and 1970. The SPLC report also found two periods in which there was a spike in the construction of Confederate monuments. The first came in the early 1900s, shortly after Plessy v. Ferguson, right around the founding of the NAACP, and during a national push to outlaw lynching. The other began shortly after Brown v. Board of Education and federal desegregation efforts in the 1960s.
USA Today reported in May that in North Carolina alone, 35 Confederate monuments have been built since the year 2000. It’s hard to argue that those monuments are about history and heritage. The paper also points out that Kentucky is saturated with Confederate memorials — far more than, say, Union memorials — even though Kentuckians fought for the Union by a 2-1 margin. A recent Phoenix New Times report found that half of the six Confederate memorials in Arizona were built in 1999 or later, the most recent in 2010. The oldest of the six was erected nearly 80 years after the Civil War, during which Arizona wasn’t yet a state.
Perhaps the best example of the fallaciousness of the “erasing history” argument came last year, when Vanderbilt University in Nashville announced it was changing the name of its Confederate Memorial Hall. Defenders of the existing name predictably accused the university of “rewriting history.” But when local journalist Betsy Phillips looked into that history, she found a more complicated story. The confederate name dated not back to the Civil War, but to the early 1900s. At the time, there was a black university on the grounds called Roger Williams University. Here’s Phillips:
Roger Williams students palled around with Vanderbilt students and sat in the bleachers at football games and I read that professor as saying that they sat intermixed with the white students at football games, not just in the same bleachers, but sitting together . . .
In 1903, someone shot at the chapel. In 1904, someone shot the college president’s wife through a window of her own home (she was not killed). A month later, at the start of 1905, someone burned down Centennial Hall. In May of that same year, another building on campus burned down. The terrorism has its effect and Roger Williams got the message that it was no longer welcome on that plot of land.
The school disbanded and sold off its buildings. It was only then that the United Daughters of the Confederacy raised money to buy naming rights to the hall, which they named in honor of the Confederacy. The only history being re-written here is that the Confederate-named building existed only because a black university had been terrorized into dissolving.
Certainly many of these monuments were constructed shortly after the Civil War, and for those, there’s more merit to the argument that they’re legitimate war memorials, immoral as that particular side of the war may have been. But the newer monuments have never been about memorializing the war dead. They’re about signaling opposition to the civil rights movement, or just plain intimidating black people.
Of course, that too is part of our history, and not one we can or should just wish away. So what to do? It seems unfair and unjust to ask black people to work, play, raise their children and live their lives among statues and memorials that celebrate their historical oppression. But it also seems dishonest and unfair to history to grind those monuments to dust. The Confederacy and the destruction it caused should be remembered, as should the ongoing effort among some to preserve its acrid ideology.
I was recently in Moscow to give a talk, and I think the answer might be to look at how that city and a couple of others have dealt with the legacy of Lenin, Stalin and the Soviet Union. In Moscow’s Gorky Park, right next to the state art museum, there’s a stretch of green space called Fallen Monument Park. It’s populated with monuments to Stalinism and Leninism erected during the Soviet era. It’s pretty striking.
Each monument includes a plaque explaining when it was erected, how it was funded and that it has been preserved and installed in the park not to celebrate Stalin or Lenin or their ideas but because of its historical significance.
One statute of Stalin stands — minus its nose — in front of a harrowing sculpture depicting dozens of human heads stacked behind barbed wire. It’s a monument to the victims of totalitarianism. It isn’t difficult to imagine a similar park where a statute of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis or Nathan Bedford Forrest might stand in front of a monument to victims of lynching.
Moscow isn’t the only city with such a park. Hungary was not only part of the Soviet bloc; Budapest was the scene of a brutal Soviet crackdown on student protests in 1956 that claimed the lives of 2,500 Hungarians. As the uprising began, the students famously tore down a statue of Stalin, leaving only his boots. When communism fell in 1991, the Soviet monuments came down, too.
The Hungarian government later collected those that weren’t destroyed and re-erected them at a spot called Memento Park in Budapest — including a replica statute of Stalin’s boots.
Grūtas Park in Lithuania also features Soviet-area monuments and memorials, along with narratives about the “naked Soviet ideology which for decades suppressed and hurt the spirit of our nation.” There’s also a repository of Soviet icons in Tallinn, Estonia, though it has more the feel of a graveyard than of a formal park.
There’s a satisfying nexus in looking to how places like Moscow and Budapest have handled Soviet monuments in considering what to do with our own Confederate monuments. The Confederacy fought to preserve the power of white people to own black people. Under Leninism and Stalinism, one’s labor, body, mind and children were the property of the state. Both ideologies represented a rejection of self-ownership and self-determination. Both failed, but only after massive and senseless loss of life. And regrettably, both still have adherents and defenders. That makes it all the more important that these monuments be moved from spaces of veneration, but not destroyed. We shouldn’t try to erase the past, but we should strive to provide it with the proper context.