Taking down statues of Confederate generals is not changing history.
In his statements about the violence last weekend, President Trump walked out a tired old canard, claiming symbols of the Confederacy were a matter of heritage and history, and that to remove them is to change or erase history. He has repeated this claim multiple times since then. The problem is, these public symbols of “heritage” were themselves part of a campaign to erase and rewrite history across the South in the early Twentieth Century.
At the center of these events was a statue of Robert E. Lee that was erected in 1924 (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/13/us/charlottesville-rally-protest-statue.html). For many, that year likely sounds like a mere footnote or reinforces the idea that this is a symbol of history. If you begin to examine the many statues and public symbols that portray the Confederacy in some way though, you will begin to notice they cluster around two periods in the 20th century: the 1920s and the 1950s (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/16/why-is-the-us-still-fighting-the-civil-war). In both of these cases, they embodied revisionist white supremacist movements, with the rise of the modern Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1920s and the emergence of the “Dixiecrats” and pro-segregationist parties of the 1950s.
The march in Charlottesville was organized by white supremacists and their fellow travelers – “white nationalists,” the alt-right, and neo-nazis. These groups claim that these statues are facts of history and represent “heritage.” As noted above, President Trump has echoed this language, dog-whistling as loud as possible to these groups to signal he supports them. This appeal to history and heritage is by no means an unusual tactic for a group that is trying to legitimize itself or its violence.
Appeals to the historicity of a belief, practice, or symbol, as a means of legitimization and justification, is about as human as it gets. This is such a common theme in anthropology, we can see this in everything from the mythologized narratives described by modern-day neo-pagans and wicca practitioners of the historical continuity from antiquity of their practices (https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/Books/Athlone-History-Witchcraft-Twentieth-Century/B0032Q0914) to how people build new nations and legitimize violence in its name (https://culanth.org/fieldsights/611-how-history-goes-wrong-historical-politics-and-its-outcomes). Similarly, white supremacists attempt to naturalize their ideology by creating a funhouse mirror version of American history that warps things beyond recognition to legitimize their contemporary political positions and violence.
The narratives these movements insist upon suffer from countless ahistorical, revisionist misrepresentations. The most common is the retelling of the Civil War as a conflict about “states’ rights” rather than one about slavery. If you had told that to a Southerner or Northerner at the time, they would have likely been confused by such a claim. To debunk this, one need only look at the declaration issued by South Carolina, the first state to secede and start the Civil War, which explicitly stated the primary reason for their decision was “…increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery” (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp). That doesn’t even take into account the wider context, such as the years of violence between pro- and anti-slavery partisans that preceded the Civil War (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p1550.html) or that time Representative Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner with a cane on the floor of the Senate (https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Caning_of_Senator_Charles_Sumner.htm) over Senator Sumner’s speech against slavery and the politicians who supported it.
At the center of this revisionism is none other than the KKK. While the KKK did have its origins in terrorism committed by White Southerners in the reconstruction era following the Civil War, it faded away by the end of the 19th century. The modern KKK was instead founded in 1915 and didn’t begin to gain traction until after World War I (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/donald-trump-kkk/473190/). This movement was far more involved in mainstream politics and would eventually come to influence national policies in the 1920s (http://americainclass.org/sources/becomingmodern/divisions/text1/text1.htm). It was during this era in which many of the modern symbols of the KKK were created and cemented, as well elements of its ideology such as the construction of “White” as “Anglo-Saxon Protestant” and excluding those whose heritage originated in Catholic Europe. All across the South at that time, statues and public symbols were erected and dedicated that were symbols of the KKK’s mythologized history of the Confederacy and White Supremacy ((https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/confederate-statues-congress/536760/)). Rather than being merely a memorial to the history of a slave-holding, treasonous nation, these were explicit statements of a racist ideology cultivated and advocated by the KKK.
Similarly, the “confederate flag” is itself an ahistorical symbol of racism. As many will point out, the modern flag that goes under that moniker was not the flag of the Confederacy, but was specifically the battle flag of General Lee’s army of Northern Virginia (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/8-things-didnt-know-confederate-flag/). Until the rise of the modern KKK and pro-segregationist movements, it was little more than that, and would not have been seen as the symbol of the South that is presented as today. This is probably best illustrated by a quote from the editor of the Augusta Courier in 1951, which the Southern Poverty Law Center chose to begin its discussion of this very topic (https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/whoseheritage_splc.pdf) :
“The Confederate flag is coming to mean something to everybody now.It means the southern cause. It means the heart throbs of the peopleof the South. It is becoming to be the symbol of the white race and thecause of the white people. The Confederate flag means segregation.”
This flag was becoming a symbol of white supremacy and segregation in 1951 due to its adoption by the Dixiecrat party in 1948. The Dixiecrats split off from the Democratic party specifically due to Pres. Truman’s advocacy for civil rights and the party’s embrace of an end to segregation. In the decade that followed, Southern states began to incorporate the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia into their state flags and other public symbols.
Even if we were to just give these groups the lie of this being history, these are symbols of an army that betrayed the U.S. Constitution and marched against the armies of the United States. These are symbols that have been brandished by hatemongers and terrorists. These are symbols that are soaked in the blood of slaves and victims of the KKK. These symbols should be repugnant to us specifically because of their historical meaning.
To claim these are symbols of “heritage not hate” is either a bald-faced lie, a mark of supreme gullibility, or an addled mind. Symbols of the confederacy, whether it be the flag, statues, or otherwise, were specifically brandished or re-invented in order to propagandize and legitimize ideologies of White Supremacy and terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. That is to say, removing these symbols is not an act of “changing history,” but rather one of restoring history by removing symbols of a recent racist revision of history propagated by the KKK and pro-segregationist groups from the 20th Century. For this reason, let us call these statements out as the lies they are – attempts to change history.