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More than a century and a half after the end of the Civil War, Americans find themselves divided over its legacy. This month, the city of New Orleans completed the process of removing four Confederate monuments — a memorial and three statues that glorified white supremacists and the leaders of a failed rebellion. It wasn't an easy feat, according to the city's mayor, Mitch Landrieu, who said that the original contractor hired to remove the statues backed out after receiving death threats and seeing his car set ablaze. The decision passed only after a two-year review process, a vote of the city council and multiple legal challenges.

Still, many in the South remain unhappy with what they perceive as the desecration of their history. Watching the disappearance of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a politician from neighboring Mississippi declared that anyone pushing for these removals ought to be “lynched” — a hideous choice of words given the history of the term in his state.

Landrieu suggested that such rhetoric further justified his city's actions. “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history,” he said in a powerful speech May 19. “These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.”

Now the mayor of Baltimore, which has its own statues of Confederate leaders, hopes to follow Landrieu's lead.

All countries struggle with the wounds and sins of their past. In Spain, lawmakers recently passed a symbolic resolution calling for the exhumation of the remains of Francisco Franco, the dictator whose tomb sits at a vast tourist site honoring those slain in the country's hideous civil war. In Germany and France, far-right politicians rage against having to shoulder the guilt of the Holocaust more than half a century after the end of World War II.


Confederacy nostalgists at a memorial in Brandenburg, Ky. on May 29. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

In the United States, though, the endurance of Confederate monuments is a visceral reminder of a project that lasted long after the Confederacy was defeated. And it's a startling sign of how divided Americans remain over the history that shapes their nation.

Americans, including President Trump, marked Memorial Day on Monday. The holiday, which pays homage to fallen service members, began in the wake of the Civil War, when the relatives and friends of soldiers on both sides decorated the graves of the dead. It would become a platform for Southern politicians to rehabilitate the image of their rebellion. In his remarks, Landrieu lamented this “cult of the Lost Cause” — a bid to give the rebellion a mythic nobility and “hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.”

Soon the memorials no longer took place in cemeteries, but in public squares and city plazas. The Lee monument in New Orleans was unveiled Feb. 22, 1884 — exactly 152 years after the birth of George Washington. It was a deliberate attempt to link the Confederate general to the American Founding Father.

“They were the father and the son-like defender of American 'liberties' in this odd version of history, each achieving a godlike character in their own time,” wrote David Blight, a professor of history at Yale University.

“Many of the statues that cause conflict today weren’t built in the years following the Civil War but in the decades following it, and not by widows or daughters of Confederate veterans, but by defiant descendants,” my colleague Monica Hesse wrote.

Blight argues that this mythologizing created the “foundation on which Southerners built the Jim Crow system” and institutionalized racism for decades to come. He notes that, after Trump's pandering to the racial grievances of white voters on the campaign trail, the “Neo-Confederates ... have a fledgling, unsteady, ahistorical victory narrative to follow now in the presidency and the White House.”

On Monday, Trump laid a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery and extolled the sacrifices of American servicemen and women who died in combat. “Their stories are now woven into the soul of our nation, into the stars and stripes on our flag, and into the beating hearts of our great, great people,” Trump said.

But consider another speech delivered in the same cemetery on Memorial Day — in 1871. The oration by Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist about whom Trump seemed clueless this year, did not applaud the “manly courage” of all Americans killed in the war but the “noble cause” for which some, but not all, perished.

“We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic,” Douglass said, speaking of the Confederacy and the zeal of its leaders to preserve the institution of slavery. “We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers.”

More than a century later, Landrieu seems to be making the same point. “The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity,” he said. “It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered.”

Landrieu also chose to quote the late South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, a man now universally admired but once imprisoned, vilified as a terrorist and scorned by leaders in the West. Mandela was speaking in 1998 about his country's tortured and traumatic search for truth and reconciliation.

“If the pain has often been unbearable and the revelations shocking to all of us,” he said, “it is because they indeed bring us the beginnings of a common understanding of what happened and a steady restoration of the nation's humanity.”

In 2017, it seems that the United States is struggling to find its own “common understanding of what happened,” and its own reckoning with a racial history built on the dehumanization and exploitation of others.

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