President Trump, along with many other leaders, has insisted that these sweeping changes would somehow erase history or “bring people apart,” as Trump told the Wall Street Journal this week. That claim may make for good rhetoric, but it obscures one crucial fact: Confederate monuments, as well as Confederate-named Army bases, are modern inventions meant to distort history and celebrate a racist past.
These symbols serve one primary purpose — to honor figures of the past who upheld an undemocratic vision of America. They were created by white supremacists. And they function as a balm for white supremacists who long to return to a period when Americans regarded black people as property.
Just the way these symbols have been used in recent years underscores their intended purpose in American society. Five years ago this week, white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and mercilessly gunned down nine black parishioners. In the days following the massacre, images surfaced on the Internet showing Roof posing with the Confederate flag as he spouted white supremacist rants on his social media accounts.
Two years later, images of the Confederate flag dominated the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which resulted in the killing of 32-year-old Heather Heyer and the injury of at least 19 others. A group of neo-Nazis who stormed the University of Virginia’s campus aimed to defend the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, who led the traitorous army during the Civil War. Months before the rally, the Charlottesville City Council had voted to remove the statue, and plans were underway to rename the park where it was located.
The Confederate flag, which Roof proudly displayed in the weeks leading up to his violent rampage, and the Confederate monument that neo-Nazis passionately defended all represent the failed Confederate States of America — a short-lived proslavery republic formed in 1861 on the cusp of the Civil War.
Every symbol of the Confederacy — flags, monuments and statues and the names of Confederate soldiers on military bases — upholds white supremacy. Roof knew this. So did participants of the Unite the Right rally. They grasped these symbols not because they misunderstood American history. They held on to these symbols precisely because they do understand the history.
The building of the Confederacy — based on long-standing ideas of white supremacy — began long before the Civil War. But it was the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 that ultimately set the wheels in motion. Not long after Lincoln’s election, seven states seceded from the Union, anticipating the end of the slave regime in the United States. The mere idea that Lincoln might end slavery — even though he made no such promise in 1860 — terrified Southerners who wanted to maintain their way of life. By June 1861, four more states had seceded.
The Confederate States of America was therefore a product of Southern slaveholders. The nation that Confederate President Jefferson Davis set out to build was inherently undemocratic: It aimed to exclude black people from the body politic. It represented everything white slaveholders desired — a nation where black people would forever be in chains, toiling day in and day out on the plantation to line the pockets of white southerners. “[Our new government’s] foundations are laid,” Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens explained in his 1861 Cornerstone speech, “its cornerstone rests, 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.”
For all its ambition, the Confederate States of America crumbled as quickly as it began. Within only a matter of years, it was defeated. The new nation that emerged out of the Civil War in 1865 was no perfect union. However, it was beginning to move toward a path for freedom and democracy for all. Indeed, the period of Reconstruction, while brief, offered a glimpse of the political possibilities for black people in the United States.
At the end of the Civil War, those who chose to remember Davis and his “lost cause” pushed for the creation of memorials. But on a national level, few Americans then wanted to commemorate those who lost the fight to maintain slavery. It was not until decades later that something else emerged that prompted the country to pine for Confederate monuments and other symbols: black political progress. The widespread growth of Confederate monuments and statues — and the practice of naming military bases after soldiers who had fought against the U.S. Army — coincided with periods of political transformation in the United States.
During the Jim Crow era, as African Americans asserted their political authority and demanded an expansion of citizenship rights, white supremacists responded with acts of violence and intimidation. The creation of Confederate statues, the reappearance of Confederate flags and the Confederate naming of Army installations worked in tandem with the growth of the Ku Klux Klan to send a clear message that black people would never be accepted as full citizens of the United States.
The early 20th century witnessed a widespread campaign to erect Confederate monuments and statues. In Richmond, for example, a Confederate heritage group installed a monument of Davis in 1907. That monument was recently toppled by protesters.
During the 1940s, the Confederate flag became a more prominent feature in public spaces, coinciding with African Americans’ efforts to expand their political rights during and after World War II. Several major Army bases were named after Confederate soldiers then, too, including Fort Pickett, Va. (1942), named after Major General George E. Pickett, and Fort Rucker, Ala. (1942), named after Confederate officer Edmund Rucker.
As the nation underwent even more significant political changes during the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of new Confederate monuments, statues and symbols were erected. This was no mere coincidence. The rise of these monuments was a concerted effort among white supremacists to challenge black progress — and revise American history to do it. In these public symbols, white supremacists upheld the myth that the Confederacy was a noble cause, rather than a failed revolt to maintain slavery.
Relying on a logic that mirrored the thinking of Southern slaveholders, many defenders then pointed to Southern “pride,” “heritage” or “culture” and the need to “preserve history” in an attempt to explain away the attachment to these racist icons and historical figures.
Today’s defenders adopt the same logic. They fail to acknowledge that Confederate monuments and symbols emerged in an effort to intimidate black Americans and uphold a revisionist — and racist — version of history. In effect, these monuments and symbols already do the work of erasing history — the very thing their defenders now accuse protesters of doing by demanding their removal. Honoring a revisionist history of the Confederacy is not only repugnant. It also undercuts the argument of those who now claim they only want to preserve history.