In August of 2017, hundreds of people rallied in Charlottesville to protest the city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park. Because of this, attention has been drawn to the national debate over whether monuments to Confederate generals should be removed from public spaces. On one side of the debate are people of color, minorities, and liberals, who claim that the statues need to be taken down. On the other side of the debate are white supremacists, conservatives and Neo-Nazis. Although the latter fights fiercely for their own opinion to be heard and their own advice to be followed, these statues need to be taken down because of the causes they symbolize: those causes being historical racism and, much more prominently today, white nationalism.
First, the issue of racism in history. According to an article by The Choices Program, “[many people] assert that the monuments glorify a racist and vile period of U.S. history by honoring those who fought a war for slavery” (choices). That part of U.S. history has been a stain on the record since before it was even abolished, and the fact that people are still in that mindset today is, frankly, astounding. But this is not just about the Civil War. In the same article, it is stated that “most Confederate monuments were built decades after the Civil War...during this time, local governments across the South were responding to a rise in African-American political power by passing laws that legalized segregation, excluded African Americans from voting, and allowed lynching to reach its peak” (choices). New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu also makes commentary on this time period in history in the address he made on May 19th, 2017, where he describes the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues as being associated with The Cult of the Lost Cause, which “had one goal--through monuments and through other means--to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity...” He goes on to say that the monuments “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for” (Landrieu). These statues not only carry the faces of men who fought for the enslavement and torture of people of color, but the weight of the hatred that led them to be erected in the first place.
Second and much more prominently is the idea of nationalism and white supremacy. As seen in the rallies in Charlottesville, the ideals commonly seen in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s have been transferred to modern American citizens; and it is not just their ideals, but their symbols. The waving of swastika flags and signs makes their point abundantly clear--these people are fighting for the destruction of non-white, Jewish, and Muslim people. As Michael Bornstein, a Polish Holocaust survivor, reflected, “Looking at swastikas, neo-Nazis, hatred of Jews--and not just Jews, but African-Americans and Mexicans and Muslims--it’s really troubling.... To see this prejudice is still here is very troubling” (Bornstein). Bornstein is right--seeing such contempt for people who are not Caucasian or “American” should be disturbing. The fact that these Confederate monuments and flags have come to be a symbol of white supremacy is wrong, and just gives more reason to removing them from the public places of society. Moreover, the fact that people who were peacefully counter-protesting near the white nationalists were injured, one killed, by one of those aforementioned white nationalists is even more disturbing. The Washington Post’s report on this tragic moment included the quote of Maurice Jones, city manager of Charlottesville: “Hate came to our town today in a way that we had feared but we had never really let ourselves imagine would” (The Washington Post). The prospect that it has been sixty-four years since segregation ended and the Klu Klux Klan is still at large and has not faced consequences for their actions is astounding, but even more astounding is the fact that it has been three quarters of a century since World War II ended and people are still waving swastikas. The fact that these symbols and ideals are as old as they are and still being used shows how flawed the U.S. system is and how the government does not truly view hatred as a crime, despite there being laws against it now. The idea of white supremacy is not only old, but despicable, and needs to be rectified before more people are killed because of it.
Those who say the monuments should remain present many arguments with some valid backings. Many people argue that cities must keep their monuments because if the statues are removed, the government will be erasing history, but the government already does that--all governments do, in fact. That is what’s called national history, which is the history that a state or government will sanction to have taught. This is the history that is written in textbooks, put in movies, celebrated with parades, and commemorated with monuments. As they say, “history is written by the winners”, and in this case, the winners are still white men who want to cut out the uglier parts of American history. For example, in 2015, a fifteen-year-old boy called out a Texan textbook where “it read that the Atlantic slave trade brought ‘millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations’”(npr), thus erasing the horrors of slavery from the minds of middle-school and high-school children by describing the slaves as “workers”. Furthermore, in the address given by Mayor Landrieu, he states that “there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks... So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to his historical malfeasance, a lie by omission” (Landrieu). In other words, do not accuse those removing the monuments of erasing history when the histories of countless other cultures are being hidden and forgotten. Besides, the removal of the statues does not automatically mean the erasure of the history of the Civil War. The statues can easily be moved to museums, cemeteries, and battlefields to commemorate the history that was made and the people who fought and died for a cause, without lifting up their cause in an honorable way or praising those people for what they fought for.
People also argue for the monuments and flags to remain because they resemble a “legacy”, according to Ben Jones in the New York Times. He says, “[the Confederate flag] is a symbol of family members who fought for what they thought was right in their time” (New York Times). Unfortunately, with those monuments and symbols comes the negative connotation of not only the entire Civil War--complete with treason and slavery--but the current usage of those symbols by white supremacists and other such racists. These people cling to legacies and lineages, family histories which they long to honor, but honoring those ancestors by extension honors the treason that side committed, the racism it bred, and the racists who now wave that flag demanding the segregation and murder of people of color and other minorities.
While many people fight for the Confederate symbols, the fact of the matter is that these monuments and flags they want to keep now hold all the negative connotations behind racism and white supremacy. While they might once have held a semblance of solemn reverence behind them in remembrance of those who died fighting for what they thought was the right thing, they now bear the weight of the nationalists who put them up beside swastikas and backed them with chants of “white lives matter” and “you will not replace us”. It is unfair to those being attacked with these symbols and threats and oppression to want to keep fighting for them. Although it is unfortunate that these historical figures and once-honorable flags have been tainted, there is a time and a place for people to keep trying to force positive images onto something presently seen as so ugly. Maybe someday these flags can be displayed with reverence and gravity, but until then, it is best to at least remove them from the places where people would have to see them every day, without choice.
Bornstein, Michael. Interview. The Choices Program, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University.
Heim, Joe, et al. “One Dead as Car Strikes Crowds amid Protests of White Nationalist Gathering in Charlottesville; Two Police Die in Helicopter Crash.” The Washington Post, 13 Aug. 2017, Accessed 13 Jan. 2018.
“Introduction--The Charlottesville Protests.” The Choices Program, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University, www.choices.edu. Accessed 13 Jan. 2018.
Isensee, Laura. “Why Calling Slaves ‘Workers’ Is More than an Editing Error.” National Public Radio, 23 Oct. 2015, Accessed 12 Jan. 2018.
Jones, Ben. “Does the Confederate Flag Breed Racism?” New York Times, 19 June 2015, Accessed 13 Jan. 2018.
Landrieu, Mitch. Speech. 19 May 2017. The Choices Program, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University.