WASHINGTON, D.C. — Racial violence in Charlottesville has re-energized efforts to scrap Confederate statues and memorials, but many Southern states are moving in the opposite direction, enacting laws that protect and retain the tributes in an apparent backlash to the growing call to take them down.
After avowed racist Dylann Roof walked into a black church in Charleston, S.C., and killed nine black church members in 2015, more than 60 publicly funded Confederate tributes have been removed or renamed, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And more efforts are now being launched by local officials nationwide after white supremacists’ deadly protest of the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
In the pre-dawn hours Wednesday, for instance, Baltimore began removing statues of Confederate leaders from parks and public areas all over town. Other cities — Lexington, Ky., Durham, N.C., and Gainesville and Tampa, Fla. — are removing their own Confederate war memorials.
And still other cities are considering similar action, including Richmond, Atlanta, Birmingham and Jacksonville and the cities of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio in Texas. In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam called for a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general, to be removed from the state capitol.
But the sentiment is certainly not unanimous. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump suggested that calls to remove Confederate monuments, memorials, markers, plaques and statues from public grounds is political correctness run amok.
“This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” Trump said Tuesday.
That feeling, cheered by some on the right, explains why North Carolina passed a law in 2015 that prevents the removal, relocation or alteration of monuments on public property without permission from the state historical commission.
In Louisiana, in May, the House passed a measure requiring an election before a war memorial can be altered or removed.
Also that month, Alabama’s Republican Governor Kay Ivey signed legislation that blocked the removal or renaming of memorial streets or buildings on public property that are at least 40 years old. The law’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Gerald Allen of Tuscaloosa, said the law “protects all of Alabama history” by establishing an 11-member committee that could approve exceptions to it.
“You cannot tell the complete story of the civil rights movement if you whitewash or pretend that that part of history didn’t exist,” Allen said of efforts to remove Confederate memorials.
Nationally, more than 1,500 publicly supported spaces are dedicated to the Confederacy, according to an unofficial count by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They include 718 monuments and statues — roughly 300 in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia alone; 109 public schools; 80 counties or cities; 10 U.S. military bases; and nine Confederate holidays celebrated by six states.
Virginia, the former capital of the Confederate States of America, leads the nation with 223 public Confederate tributes, according to the SPLC’s unofficial count. Texas and Georgia have more than 170 apiece, North Carolina has 140 and Mississippi has 131. South Carolina, has 112 followed by Alabama with 107, 91 in Louisiana, 80 in Tennessee and 61 in Florida.
Most Confederate monuments weren’t erected in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but rather between 1890 and 1925, said Ethan Kytle, who chairs the history department at California State University, Fresno.
“It was precisely the time when white Southerners were crafting Jim Crow laws and were lynching African-Americans two or three a week for 30 years. And these monuments spoke to those movements even if they did not directly use racial language or talk about the institution of slavery,” Kytle said.
Another smaller spurt of Confederate monuments — particularly schools named after Confederate leaders — spiked during the 1950s and 1960s when Southern cities and states implemented “massive resistance,” passing laws to prevent the desegregation of public schools as required by the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.
The timing of both spurts suggests the monuments were less about historical memory and more about resistance to growing black empowerment, Kytle said.
Indeed, civil rights groups see these Confederate tributes as painful reminders of black oppression that serve to lionize treasonous rebels who turned against their country to defend slavery.
On that issue, today’s white supremacists have a “clear-eyed understanding” that Confederate memorials are a testament to white supremacy, said Blain Roberts, a history professor at California State University, Fresno.
“Confederate propagandists for a long time tried to kind of evade that issue, saying these monuments were about ‘bravery of Confederate soldiers,’ ‘states’ rights’ and ‘defending the homeland.’ But never coming out and really saying that these monuments were really about white supremacy and the South’s efforts to preserve slavery by seceding from the union and starting the civil war,” Roberts said.
As states and local governments debate the hot issue, Roberts said a possible compromise might be contextualizing current memorials by adding more accurate descriptions of the South’s true role in the Civil War.
But removing them altogether will continue to be a tough sell below the Mason-Dixon line.
“What’s going to be the next thing they look at and try to remove from the history books?” asked Allen, who sponsored Alabama’s law blocking the removal of historic streets and buildings.”
“Sanitizing the past would not help us learn from our ancestors’ mistakes nor will it help us come together as a nation,” he said.