Reprinted courtesy of Contexts: Understanding People in their Social Worlds.
Monuments embody, impose and transmit messages about political power and social hierarchies. Efforts to establish and protect these memorial landscapes in prominent public spaces serve powerful minority interests — past and present. Removing Confederate monuments and symbols, and presenting counternarratives about them serves the public interest by challenging messages and practices of exclusion, discrimination and racism. Protests and counterprotests about collective memories and their representation and misrepresentation in public spaces create long-overdue opportunities for understanding and contesting historically embedded institutional processes affecting all Americans.
Supporters of Confederate monuments defend their historical significance. Yet, most scholars who describe them as “inventions of tradition” do not support these claims. Instead, they view claims of historical continuity as largely fictitious and self-serving. Most Confederate monuments standing on pedestals in public spaces today appeared 40 to 50 years after the Civil War ended.
They elide memories of the inhumanity, brutality and devastation of slavery, and the war fought to end it. Decades of fundraising campaigns, conscious design and lavish ceremonies produced public spaces for promoting an exclusively white, elite Southern view of the Civil War and the Lost Cause long after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union Gen. Ulysses Grant at Appomattox Court House in 1865. The Lost Cause is claimed to be the honorable loss of the Civil War in the pursuit to preserve Southern culture. Most memorials appeared between 1890 and 1920, a period described as the “nadir” of race relations in the United States. During this period, African-Americans lost many of the civil rights gained during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and White supremacists gained control of Southern governments through disenfranchisement and racial violence.
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Determined to disrupt black and white political coalitions, and legitimate their own tenuous authority, white elites commissioned and displayed monuments in public spaces to show continuity between their regimes and a mythical past. They created regional narratives about heroes and place by distorting historical facts; and in a war-weary nation, shaped national consciousness about abandoning post-war goals of social justice and justifying racial segregation. The United Daughters of the Confederacy raised scholarship money, influenced textbook selection and built memorials to teach generations of school children to “remember” the Confederacy and the Lost Cause, and socialized them to accept their position in the social hierarchy.
For roughly 100 years, these spaces have mediated public memory and operated as centers of white identity politics. Functioning much like today’s online forums for white supremacist virtual communities, these memorial parks and statues established a symbolic and cultural web of belonging for economically discouraged and politically marginalized whites. Often displaying Confederate battle flags and symbols, they served as meeting places for Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups. Confederate memorials became prominent symbols of White resistance to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. And not surprisingly, during today’s political climate when the civil rights of immigrants, the poor, women, the LGBTQ community and people of color are jeopardized, these memorial landscapes have become scenes of white supremacist rallies and confrontations between protesters and counterprotesters. Many defenders of confederate monuments claim they support “heritage, not hate.” Yet, studies show the strongest supporters of monuments know less about Civil War history than their opponents who are more likely to know the names of specific battles and leaders.
Because of America’s ongoing engagement with these physical and symbolic spaces, their presence defines what may or may not take place there, and establishes what is “prescribed or proscribed,” as well as “scene and obscene” in the social order. The statuary over-representation of generals, coupled with the paucity of ordinary foot soldiers, and the absence of women and people of color defines the class, gender, race and power relations of antebellum social hierarchy. In my book Memphis and the Paradox of Place, I discuss the physical likenesses of the monuments, including the equestrian monuments of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest (leader of the Fort Pillow Massacre and founder of the KKK) in Memphis and Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, and how they symbolize the salience of patriarchy and idealized masculinity. Statues of men displaying Anglo-Saxon features, athleticism, and heroic bearing poised on a pedestal requires that everyone look up to them, both physically and symbolically. The equestrian format represents a classic allegory of power. Forrest’s horse, like Lee’s, stands with all 4 feet on the pedestal. Both Forrest and Lee hold the reins gently, making light contact with the horse’s mouth, suggesting that only a touch on the reins exercises power. Their poses provide a symbol of idealized master-slave, male-female relations of the past, as well as a model of elite hopes for future leaders — white, male, military authority figures.
The contestation and protestation of white supremacist rallies in public parks that memorialize a mythical and divisive confederacy resonates with many Americans, including this white Southern woman sociologist. Many Americans lack the knowledge and resources to participate in meaningful conversations with friends, families and neighbors who may disagree with one another. Many reluctantly question the biases inculcated by more than 100 years of statue-building and hero-worshipping produced by a backlash following the Civil War and Reconstruction. Now, many Americans view the sight of white supremacists waving torches and neo-Nazi symbols in public spaces defending Confederate monuments as obscene and unacceptable. These scenes of actual and threatened violence may frighten us, but they also should remind us our silence will not protect us. In the words of Audre Lorde: “It is not difference which immobilizes us but silence. And there are many silences to be broken.”
Wanda Rushing is professor emerita at the University of Memphis and past-president of Sociologists for Women in Society. She is the author of Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization in the American South.
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