One of the things that struck me about the recent moves to remove monuments honoring leading figures of the confederacy is how many such symbols there are all over the country, especially, of course, in those states that formed part of the confederacy. It is encouraging that even deep Republican states are reconsidering their identification with such symbols. A good example is Mississippi where I was surprised to learn that the confederate flag forms part of the current state flag. But this solidly Republican state has just voted to start the process to remove it.
The Mississippi state legislature — both the House and Senate — passed a resolution on Saturday that will begin the process to change the state’s flag.
The newly passed resolution suspends the rules so that lawmakers can consider a bill that would change or remove the flag. First, the Mississippi House of Representatives passed the measure in a vote of 85-34 amid loud cheers in the chamber, followed by the Senate in a vote of 36-14.
The passage of the measure in both chambers now leads the way for a bill to be proposed and passed to allow for the change of the state flag. The bill is expected to be taken up on Sunday afternoon, when both the House and Senate go back into session.
Mississippi is the last state in the country whose flag features the Confederate emblem. The state flag features red, white and blue stripes with the Confederate battle emblem in the corner. It was first adopted in 1894.
Earlier on Saturday, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, said in a tweet that he would sign a bill to remove Confederate imagery from the state flag if the legislature sends him a bill this weekend.
“The legislature has been deadlocked for days as it considers a new state flag. The argument over the 1894 flag has become as divisive as the flag itself and it’s time to end it. If they send me a bill this weekend, I will sign it,” Reeves said.
And the governor has indeed signed it.
Note that the flag was adopted nearly thirty years after the Civil War had ended with the defeat of the confederacy but during the height of the backlash against Reconstruction, the period when white Southerners were reclaiming the power over the blacks that they had lost with the end of slavery. So clearly the old flag was meant to signal that they planned to perpetuate the goals of the confederacy even after having lost the war.
Some supporters of the confederacy are now taking down the statues pre-emptively and hiding them to prevent their removal by protestors.
In Fort Myers, Florida, a bronze bust of Confederate General Robert E. Lee disappeared without warning on June 1—but not because protesters had toppled the monument. Instead, with the approval of local officials, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), an all-male Confederate enthusiasts group, had successfully lobbied to protect it.
On June 1, Jeff Hornsby, a moderator for the private Facebook group Keep Lee in Lee that’s affiliated with the SCV, posted a photo of himself draped over the bust. The caption read, “Our honorable General has been under a social media attack this week, so rather than letting someone make that mistake in real life, he is in safe keeping for now with the SCV. We will protect him to the end of the earth. Rebel yell.” The exact location of the statue has not been publicly disclosed.
I am not sure what purpose this action serves since protestors just wanted the statues removed. The statue’s supporters seem to have done the work of the protestors.
But it is not just the honoring of confederate figures that is being repudiated. We have also seen monuments to presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt come down. And just a few days ago, Princeton University voted to remove the name of another former president Woodrow Wilson from its School of Public and International Affairs because of his racism.
In a statement, Princeton’s trustees said they had considered “whether it is acceptable for this University’s school of public affairs to bear the name of a racist who segregated the nation’s civil service after it had been integrated for decades”.
While he is remembered as a progressive, internationalist statesman, Wilson’s reputation is clouded by his racist policies in other areas of government when he was president from 1913 to 1921.
Wilson segregated federal workers in Washington DC, blocked a proposal to include racial equality as a founding principle in the League of Nations, and hosted White House screenings of the racist 1915 film Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. He was seen as accepting of brutal racial segregation in the south as a way of keeping the peace.
In the New York Times in 2015, the lawyer Gordon Davis, whose grandfather was demoted in his civil service career as part of a systematic purge of the federal government, wrote that Wilson “was not just a racist”.
“He believed in white supremacy as government policy, so much so that he reversed decades of racial progress. But we would be wrong to see this as a mere policy change; in doing so, he ruined the lives of countless talented African Americans and their families,” Davis wrote.
Wilson also saw education in very elitist ways. He wanted to preserve a real education for just a small elite while all the others would be merely trained to be cogs in the capitalist machine, saying in a speech, “We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”
Monuments to Christopher Columbus have also been targeted but those efforts are being resisted by the Italian-American community, including New York governor Andrew Cuomo. It is interesting to see what happens in Columbus, OH, where the mayor of that city has removed a statue that had stood in front of the City Hall, and placed it in storage. Goodbye, Columbus!
So one by one the country is shedding itself of memorials honoring its ugly past.