Symbols like flags and monuments matter, because what they symbolize is our vision of ourselves as a nation: the heroes, battles, movements, sacrifices and ideals we honor. So when I see multiracial crowds toppling the statues of Confederate soldiers and politicians, when I see respected military leaders arguing that Army posts should no longer bear the names of Confederate generals, when I see NASCAR banning displays of the Confederate battle flag at its races — witnessing all of this, I let hope triumph over experience and allow myself to imagine that this may indeed be a transformational moment.
Like the Civil War itself, “Lost Cause” symbology is simply and entirely about white supremacy. It has nothing to do with “heritage” or “tradition” or any such gauzy nonsense. The heavily armed “liberate Michigan” mob that invaded the statehouse in Lansing, egged on by President Trump, had no historical reason to be waving the Confederate flag. That banner represents the knee that has been kept on the necks of African Americans not just for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the time Derek Chauvin spent crushing the life out of George Floyd, but for 401 years.
Lee’s surrender ended nothing, because the nation did not even begin to grapple with white supremacy. Reconstruction was strangled in its infancy; true racial reconciliation was never even attempted. The statue of Davis in Richmond, brought down by protesters Wednesday night, was not erected until 1907. Like almost all of the Lost Cause monuments, it was built during the revanchist era, when Southern whites were celebrating their reestablished dominance over African Americans via repressive Jim Crow laws and the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan.
Many recall that the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse was taken down in 2015 following the massacre of nine African American worshipers by a white supremacist at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston. Few realize that the racist flag had been installed at the statehouse not in 1861 but a century later, in 1961, when black South Carolinians like my parents were agitating for the right to vote.
The killing of Floyd has provoked a national moment of reckoning with police violence and white supremacy. But the position of the Trump administration is that systemic racism does not even exist — that our unexamined and unaddressed racial problems all come down to a few “bad apples” here and there.
Perhaps in an attempt to gain political advantage — and perhaps, as much evidence suggests, because it’s what he truly believes — Trump has used this moment to side with Lost Cause white supremacy. His all-caps tweets for “LAW & ORDER” sound like George Wallace when he was governor of Alabama; his demand for a militarized response to the protests reminds me of Bull Connor, the Birmingham commissioner of public safety who attacked nonviolent civil rights protesters with water hoses and vicious dogs.
When it was reported that high-ranking Army officials are open to stripping the names of Confederate generals from military posts such as Fort Bragg, Fort Benning and Fort Hood, Trump reacted instantly. He tweeted Wednesday that he “will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”
Trump claimed, ridiculously, that the names are somehow part of the nation’s “history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom.” He may be historically ignorant enough not to know that the generals in question were traitors as famous for the battles they lost as for any of their triumphs; that ultimate victory went to the Union, not the Confederacy; and that the whole point of the rebellion was to deny freedom to African Americans. Or he may know these facts but believe his political base doesn’t.
Just hours later, however, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag. If there is one sporting venue that Trump might think of as a safe space, it would be a NASCAR race — until now. Heck, I might even go watch a race when the pandemic ends.
Trump must be bewildered. Unsubtle appeals to racial animus (remember his “birther” lies) have always worked for him in the past, but now he seems to be flailing. If it turns out that the Lost Cause is finally, truly lost, then so is the president who made himself its champion.