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May 16, 2019 HUMAN RIGHTS

Confederate Monuments That Remain

by Beth D. Jacob
Jefferson Davis statue in front of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery

Jefferson Davis statue in front of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery

When Amazon moves to its new second home in Crystal City, Virginia—part of the Washington, D.C., metro area and a stop on the D.C. metro—its address will be on or near Jefferson Davis Highway, one of the main Crystal City thoroughfares. While the fact that the leader of an armed insurrection against the United States is honored so near the nation’s capital may seem surprising to some, Jefferson Davis Highway is only one of almost 2,000 roads, schools, statues, and other monuments throughout the United States honoring the Confederacy (not counting cemeteries, battlefields, and thousands of historical markers that dot the Southern landscape). SeeWhose Heritage: A Report on Public Symbols of the Confederacy.” The largest monument is etched into Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta. Bigger than Mount Rushmore, the high-relief carving of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson dominates the landscape on the site of the 1915 revival of the Ku Klux Klan. While most Confederate symbols are found in states that were part of the Confederacy, some are in states like California or New York, and even in states such as Idaho, Arizona, and New Mexico, which were admitted to the Union after the 1865 end of the Civil War.

It is well accepted by historians that the Confederacy was established and fought primarily to preserve slavery. For example, in what is known as his “Cornerstone Speech,” Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens declared in 1861: “Our new government is founded 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.” Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, Before, During, and Since the War, at 721 (1866). The Confederate Constitution also enshrined this idea, providing that “the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected” in all Confederate territories. Confederate States Const. art. IV, § 3, cl. 3.

It is also well recognized, including by a unanimous United States Supreme Court, that public monuments reflect the opinions of the municipalities where they are found. “Permanent monuments displayed on public property typically represent government speech. . . . A monument, by definition, is a structure that is designed as a means of expression,” and this is also true for “privately financed and donated monuments that government accepts and displays.” Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U.S. 460, 470–471 (2009) (Alito, J.). Thus, the unacceptable message of Jefferson Davis Highway, Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia (a parade of Confederate leaders), Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia (Robert E. Lee), and the scores of schools named after Confederate icons, is that those who fought to preserve slavery should be honored, and those whose ancestors were slaves are less respected or even inferior to other Americans. Portraits of Confederate generals are even found in courtrooms, and statues honoring the Confederacy stand before courthouses across the South, sending the unpalatable message that some members of the community are less worthwhile—and less likely to receive impartial justice—than others. 

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, across the street from the Alabama State Capitol

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, across the street from the Alabama State Capitol

This message is well understood. In an extreme example, Dylann Roof, the man who murdered nine black worshippers at the historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 posted photographs of himself literally wrapped in a Confederate flag. See David Wren & Doug Pardue, Dylann Roof Had Outlined Racist Views on Website Prior to Church Shooting, Post & Courier (June 19, 2015). The violent white supremacist, racist, and anti-Semitic “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 was organized around a protest against the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee monument.

Following the Charleston massacre, some monuments and other Confederate symbols were removed, perhaps most famously the battle flag from the South Carolina capitol building. Two Southern states hastily passed preservation laws that forbid the removal or even contextualizing of Confederate memorials, adding to a handful of existing similar statutes. Alabama enacted its law in 2017 and North Carolina in 2015, one month after the Charleston murders; Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia already had laws on their books.

Brigadier General Albert Pike memorial is the only outdoor sculpture in Washington, D.C., honoring a Confederate general

Brigadier General Albert Pike memorial is the only outdoor sculpture in Washington, D.C., honoring a Confederate general

The argument that removal of signs of white supremacy would be tantamount to “erasing history” is easily debunked. Public monuments are not erected to study history; they are erected to express the values of the community. History is studied in schools and museums, and we are strong advocates that the history of the Civil War should be studied, and studied in depth—including the creation of the “Lost Cause” myth that ignores slavery. 

In any event, the history of public Confederate symbology is not that of the Civil War, but of resistance to emancipation and civil rights. Many of the monuments were erected between 1895 and 1920, the time of the Jim Crow laws and a resurgence in public lynchings; between 1877 and 1950, over 4,000 African Americans were lynched in the United States. As Louis Nelson, professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia, says, “[t]hese are not Civil War monuments; these are Jim Crow monuments. . . . We need to understand and interpret them in this context. They were erected amid the apex of lynching in the American South.” Louis Nelson, The End of an Era: On History, Context and Confederate Monuments, Int’l Coalition Sites Conscience (May 2017). 

Similarly, the surge in naming public schools after Confederate leaders followed the Brown v. Board of Education decision requiring integration of public schools. Southern Poverty Law Center, Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy, at 12–13; Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, at 27, 41 (2017).

No one is erasing history by removing Confederate monuments. But by preserving them—and thereby reinforcing a false narrative of the “Lost Cause”—we’re erasing the history of oppression, the history of discrimination, and the history of the still-to-be-achieved American ideal, enshrined in our Constitution, of equality and justice for all. 

Beth D. Jacob is a senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center and a member of the ABA’s African American Affairs Committee.