Charlottesville, Virginia was the scene of the infamous rally in August 2017 in which white supremacists marched in the night bearing tiki torches and chanting that white dominance must be defended and yelling things like “Jews will not replace us”. The next day there were clashes between them and anti-racist protestors that resulted in a young woman Heather Heyer being killed when a car ran over her. It was driven by a white supremacist who was later convicted of murder.
That rally sparked movements to remove monuments honoring the Confederacy and yesterday two massive statues in the city of the leaders of the rebellion Robert E Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, which the white supremacists had used as their rallying cry, were removed and put into storage. There was a small crowd present to cheer the removal.
It is astonishing that the US is in some sense still fighting the Civil War. Jason Wilson looks at how this defense of the indefensible came about.
In St Paul’s memorial church in Charlottesville, Virginia, last Friday, just up the street from where white supremacists were gathering for a torchlight rally, Cornel West explained why African Americans saw the removal of Confederate monuments as so important.
On hearing that hundreds of white supremacists were gathered in a nearby park, the civil rights leader said, with a hint of weariness: “These are chickens coming home to roost. We should have eliminated these statues a long time ago.
“The idea that the American family has to embrace figures like [Confederate general] Robert E Lee, or Stonewall Jackson, who were fundamentally committed to enslaving black people in perpetuity … These people are not heroes.”
But figures such as Lee and Jackson are heroes to some. Their admirers include Donald Trump. In a rowdy press conference on Tuesday, he compared them to celebrated figures in American history such as presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Their admirers also include the white nationalist movement, which is currently surging in the US. The footsoldiers of that movement terrorised Charlottesville last weekend. Trump downplayed their violent excesses, saying they were merely “there to protest the taking down the statue of Robert E Lee”.
There are about 1500 monuments like this around the country, mostly in the states that made up the Confederacy. Most of them were built well after the war ended, under the mythology of what is known as the Lost Cause.
[L]ike most of the other monuments to the confederacy’s “lost cause”, the statue in Charlottesville was not built in the immediate aftermath of that war. Rather, it was commissioned more than half a century later in 1917, and erected in 1924.
It was part of a wave of statue-building in the south that took place between the late 1890s and 1920, according to research from the Southern Poverty Law Center. That wave crested in about 1911.
There was another, later, flurry of statue-building in the 50s, and around this time the Confederate battle flag became a popular symbol. In that decade and the next, some southern states, such as Florida, changed their flags to more closely resemble the standard of southern defeat.
According to Joseph Lowndes, a political scientist at the University of Oregon and author of two books on the US’s racial politics and the south, the timing of these enthusiasms is not accidental. “The statues go up in moments of racial reaction.”
One of the core beliefs at the heart of the Jim Crow project – and which these laws sought to implant – was that the civil war had not been an ignominious defeat, but a noble struggle. Leonard Zeskind, activist and author of Blood and Politics, a history of white nationalism in the US, says the purpose of the hundreds of statues erected around the turn of the century was “to rewrite who won the war”, in order to justify Jim Crow.
Lowndes says it was in part an effort to “whitewash the civil war, and the reasons it was fought”. Eventually, Jim Crow was dealt a blow by the supreme court’s 1954 finding, in Brown v Board of Education, that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. From this time, a black-led civil rights movement fought to extend the implications of this decision into the full desegregation of the south, and carried the fight into other areas such as voting rights.
But many whites in the south, and their state and local governments, fought tooth and nail to preserve segregation. They were, in effect, fighting the civil war all over again. In Virginia, a strategy of “massive resistance” devised by Senator Harry F Byrd Sr saw integrated schools defunded and schools closed, including in Charlottesville.
It was during this white resistance to civil rights that confederate symbols and statues once again became popular, and were adopted both by ordinary people and whole states, as signifiers of the resilience of white supremacy. And it was during this time that there was another surge in the number of statues erected throughout the southern states.
Lowndes says: “They are presented as being part of a continuous heritage, but the idea that these symbols have anything to do with anything but racial reaction is wrong.”
The great African American intellectual WEB DuBois wrote in 1931 of the grandiose inscriptions on recently erected monuments to the confederacy that: “Of course, the plain truth of the matter would be an inscription something like this: ‘Sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.’”
Of course, no one will ever admit that what they are nostalgic for slavery, so the arguments are dressed up in other ways.
But while critics of the statues have been mobilising, white nationalists have been turning the statues into rallying points for resistance to multiculturalism, feminism and minority rights. For them the fight never really stopped, and now it goes on as they rally around these symbols of the confederacy.
But it is not clear that tying their movement to these monuments to racism is going to be a winner for them in the long run.
[George Hawley, a political scientist at the University of Alabama,] says that the discussion around confederate monuments is indicative of the growing estrangement between a resurgent radical right, and an embattled mainstream conservatism. In the past, he says, “mainstream conservative media outlets were supportive of the maintenance of confederate symbols”, and did so under catchphrases such as “heritage, not hate”. This changed after Roof’s rampage in Charleston: establishment and so-called “movement” conservatives “stopped defending monuments”.
There have been signs in the days since that the events in Charlottesville may have only accelerated the movement against confederate statues. In Durham, North Carolina, a group of protesters pulled down a monument dedicated in 1924. On Tuesday night in Baltimore, hours after Trump’s incendiary press conference, the city removed four confederate memorials, including one of Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Other cities have committed to tearing statues down since the weekend.
For Cornel West, the sooner the better. As the white nationalist torchlight rally prepared to kick off not a mile away, he said that the heritage the statues speak for is not worth commemorating. “The confederacy is part of a tradition that’s grounded in hatred, and is tied to one of the most vicious structures of domination in the modern world.”
Donald Trump fed the flames of this racist mythology and is now promoting his own version of the Lost Cause by pushing the Big Lie that he actually won the 2020 election. It is a testament to the power of people to believe in what the desperately want to be true that so many have bought into his lie.