Why the monuments to the Confederacy must come down
Following the horrific events in Charlottesville,Va., where white supremacists of all stripes showed up in a breathtakingly awful display of hate, the focus in the aftermath has turned to the presence of over 1,500 symbols and monuments to the Confederacy, which litter public spaces throughout the American South.
The purported reason for the "Unite the Right" rally on August 13 was to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, who sits astride his horse in a small park in downtown Charlottesville.
However, some us who have been following the rise of white hate groups in this country believe the real reason for this outpouring of white nationalism in Charlottesville is not really about retaining Confederate monuments. It's entirely plausible that this was more of a trial balloon on the part of "alt-right" organizers; a testing of the waters of just how much overt white supremacy will be tolerated in our current political climate under the Trump administration.
President Donald Trump's initial lukewarm response to the events in Virginia was followed by a press conference Tuesday, where he went off his prepared remarks. Trump's ad-libbed comments blamed the anti-racist protesters and praised both sides of the violent conflict, indicating that there were "very fine people" marching with Nazis and the KKK to protect "a very, very fine statue". It's no surprise that denouncements of both him and his presidency have come pouring in fast and furious ever since.
Not surprisingly, a lot of people are now questioning just how important and relevant to our history as a nation these statues and monuments to the Confederacy really are.
Many deplore them as nothing more than symbols of white supremacy, erected by both traitors and losers in a horrific Civil War, while others believe that they are historically valid monuments to our past, the removal of which would erase history.
I'm here to tell you that they are neither valid, nor historic. They are nothing more than the result of a very successful campaign orchestrated by southern whites at the turn of the20th century, known as the "Lost Cause of the Confederacy"
Few know about the Lost Cause other than adherents to organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization categorized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a neo-confederate group. The UDC's sole purpose was (and still is) to commemorate and glorify a warped history of the South prior to and during the Civil War.
Yale University history professor Rollin G. Osterweis summarizes the Lost Cause:
The Legend of the Lost Cause began as mostly a literary expression of the despair of a bitter, defeated people over a lost identity. It was a landscape dotted with figures drawn mainly out of the past: the chivalric planter; the magnolia-scented Southern belle; the good, gray Confederate veteran, once a knight of the field and saddle; and obliging old Uncle Remus. All these, while quickly enveloped in a golden haze, became very real to the people of the South, who found the symbols useful in the reconstituting of their shattered civilization. They perpetuated the ideals of the Old South and brought a sense of comfort to the New.
The UDC supporters of the Lost Cause worked tirelessly at "raising money to build monuments, lobbying legislatures and Congress for the reburial of Confederate dead, and working to shape the content of history textbooks." The placement of Confederate monuments was their primary focus.
If we examine when many of these monuments to the Confederacy were unveiled in town squares and parks throughout the South, which happened largely during the first two decades of the 20th century, it becomes clear that their placement was designed to fulfill a different version of history than what had actually taken place. The glorification of these Confederate generals and common foot soldiers were actually a revision of history, designed to obfuscate the true motives behind the Civil War.
It's interesting to note that the North decided at the time that this serious whitewash of history by the South was an essential and acceptable part of a reunion between the North and South. As historian Allan Nolan wrote, "The reunion was exclusively a white man's phenomenon and the price of the reunion was the sacrifice of the African Americans."
It was also during this time that the second wave of the Klu Klux Klan was flourishing. At its peak, it claimed to have 15 percent of the nation's eligible population as members, an estimated 4-5 million men.
There can be little doubt of what the impact of both the resurrection of memorials to a fabricated history of the Confederate South (including a statue of the original Klan Grand Wizard, Nathan Bedford Forrest) coupled with a huge population of KKK members, would be on the psyche and safety of the African American population at that time.
In Arizona, we were not yet a state during the Civil War. We were still included in the New Mexico Territory, which was claimed by both the Union and the Confederacy. The most notable Civil War event in Arizona took place in 1862 when a small skirmish between a Union cavalry patrol from California and a party of Confederate pickets from Tucson took place at Picacho Peak.
But despite the fact that our involvement in the war was minimal, and that the Confederates were eventually chased out of the state by the Union Army, nearly all of our Civil War memorials in this state commemorate the Confederacy. And all were erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Perhaps the most offensive of these monuments is located across from the Arizona State Capitol, in Wesley Bolin Park, where an Arizona state-shaped monument constructed of copper-rich ore and petrified wood, sports a plaque stating:
Arizona Confederate Troops,
1861 - 1865
United Daughters of the Confederacy
The fact that 1961 was during the height of our country's Civil Rights Movement was probably lost on those who placed that monument, but it should not be lost on us today.
It also should be noted that directly across the walkway from this monument sits a much smaller monument dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Given that the monuments in Arizona and throughout the south are in fact nothing more than glorified depictions of a south that never actually existed; a south that refused to come to terms with the fact that their cause, their lost cause, was nothing to be proud of at all, there should be no doubt whatsoever that these are not actual depictions of history in our country.
Therefore, Confederate monuments have no place in our public spaces. They are false idols that were created during a deeply shameful time, when African Americans were terrorized in the south by the KKK, and Jim Crow ruled.
The statue of General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville is but one example of a deeply flawed man who is still held up as a glorified leader of the South, even though his armies were vanquished and his cause was unjust. He belongs in a museum as a cautionary tale, and deserves nothing more.
Let's take him down.
Let's take all the others down too.
Arizona's only African American legislator, Rep. Reginald Bolding, has been pushing for the removal of the Confederate monuments in Arizona for quite some time now. His cause may gain some traction since the events in Charlottesville, but at this point, Gov. Doug Ducey is still pushing back. You can contact Ducey and let him know what you think here.
Amy McMullen is an activist for health justice, immigrant rights, and anti-racism, residing in Phoenix, Arizona. She recently discovered that she is the great-great granddaughter of Confederate slave owners in Virginia, and this has sparked her interest in advocating for the removal of Confederate memorials in our public spaces.
Amy is an Arizona resident whose passion about human rights has evolved into activism since the passage of SB 1070. She’s originally from Maine, where she was part of the tourism industry for over 20 years. Her writings have appeared in the Tucson Sentinel, Truthout, and Open Salon. Her full-time work is as a volunteer and clinic director at a nonprofit free clinic she co-founded in downtown Phoenix.