The South's faces of terror must go: Don't let the Confederate flag fight go the way of gun control

Charleston is not old news. But the heirs of the Confederacy must not be allowed to stall. Their idols must fall

Published August 4, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/David Goldman)
(AP/David Goldman)

The United Daughters of the Confederacy understood how power works. For the better part of the twentieth century, the United Daughters – along with other like-minded organizations – filled the South’s public spaces with monuments to their heroes. Statues dot town squares, parks, and university campuses, while public schools are emblazoned with the names of Confederate generals.

Confederate organizations knew that the symbols standing sentinel over public places reflected our values as a society. These symbols are also expressions of power – they demonstrate who controls the present as well as the past.

Six weeks after the mass killing in Charleston, we are living through a heretofore unimaginable moment. We should take this opportunity to make clear that the Confederacy’s values are not our own. In that spirit, we should come up with creative and meaningful ways to rename schools called Lee and Davis, to remake Confederate monuments (or tear them down if necessary), and to re-imagine our public spaces. The alternative is to let them stand. And if we let them stand now, they may continue to cast shadows over our public spaces for generations.

The Confederates lost the Civil War, but their heirs won the South. As a show of their dominance, white southerners went about planting Confederate likenesses all across the region. They were not satisfied with a Jefferson Davis statue here and there; they had to mark the entire South with Davis monuments. And they didn’t stop with statues. They realized that political domination entailed more than just public symbols. They enacted an entire set of laws to disfranchise and otherwise oppress African Americans; they enforced such laws by threat of the rope, the whip, and the mob. Then they rewrote history. They transformed Confederate leaders from odious slaveholders into freedom fighters. They claimed that the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery. They even renamed the war – calling it the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression. They later asserted that the Confederate battle flag represented southern pride, not racism. (A recent New York Times poll found that 57 percent of white Americans still believe this, as do 65 percent of white southerners and 75 percent of white southern men.) That flag found its way into statehouses, national parks, and federal cemeteries. And those myths found their way into our textbooks, our classrooms, and our popular culture.

It is time for us to call them on all of it.

The battle has been joined in many cities, among them Austin, Texas, and Memphis, Tennessee.

In Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood, a group of parents are attempting to rename the Robert E. Lee Elementary School. It was founded in 1939, when the United Daughters of the Confederacy lobbied Austin’s school board to name the school after Robert E. Lee. Hyde Park was a white-only neighborhood at the time; the name of the school certainly reflected the neighborhood’s values. In January 1940, the school celebrated Lee’s birthday. The United Daughters presented the school with a Confederate battle flag. Everyone stood and sang a Confederate song: “We are a band of brothers and native to the soil/Fighting for the property we gained by honest toil.”

As the city’s school board debates whether to change the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary, the University of Texas at Austin is considering whether to remove four Confederate statues – including those of Lee and of Jefferson Davis – from prominent places on its campus. Some detractors have claimed that to change the school’s name, or to remove the statues, would only allow further evasion of the fundamental issues. This would enable liberal whites to congratulate themselves for achieving racial progress, and be done with it.

Such criticisms underestimate the power of racist symbols. Changing the symbols could represent just the first step in a more wide-ranging overhaul. It is no small thing to reshape a built environment marked by the Confederacy into one that celebrates democracy, freedom, and inclusion. That new environment might well contribute to corresponding changes in attitudes and policies.

In an opinion piece in the Austin American-Statesman, Daniel Oppenheimer offered a creative solution. His two children attend the Robert E. Lee school (and he is also a close friend of mine). Oppenheimer proposed to rename his kids’ school after Russell Lee. Russell Lee worked as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration during the 1930s and 1940s, empathetically documenting the experiences of a wide array of Americans through depression and war. Lee settled in Austin after World War II, taught at the university, and built a reputation as an extraordinary documentarian of Texas life and culture.

The South has many other schools named for Robert E. Lee. And there are enough alternative Lees to go around. Herbert Lee was a farmer in Amite County, Mississippi, who had attended voter registration workshops. When SNCC leader Bob Moses came to Amite County in 1961 to work on voter registration, Lee drove him around the area. For this, Lee was murdered by E.H. Hurst, a state legislator. In Belzoni, Mississippi, in the 1950s, George Lee reported to the federal authorities that Humphreys County officials had rejected his poll tax payment. Lee then successfully registered to vote. He attracted the wrath of local whites, and was killed in 1955. In Perry County, Alabama, in 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson participated in a voting rights march. Alabama state troopers set upon the marchers with clubs and nightsticks. Jackson retreated to a nearby café, where a trooper shot him dead. Jackson’s death helped to spark the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march. (His name could take the place of either Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson.) Jimmie Lee Jackson’s grandfather was 82-year-old Cager Lee, who was beaten by Alabama state troopers yet vowed to march in the next demonstration.

It’s time to name every Lee School after an individual who actually fought for freedom, rather than one who fought for the right to enslave other people.

Well before the mass killing in Charleston, citizens of Memphis had been arguing about the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest that stands in a public park near downtown. Even in an antebellum South teeming with detestable racists, Forrest stood apart. He had become a millionaire as a slave trader in Memphis. Then as a Confederate general in 1864, Forrest massacred Union troops – black as well as white – who had already surrendered at Fort Pillow. He was also the original grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Today, some Memphis residents oppose removing or tearing down the statue. Forrest’s great-great-grandson, Kevin Bradley, was quoted in the New York Times: “You cannot change history.” Indeed, we cannot. Forrest lived a despicable life, and that cannot be altered. But there is no reason to memorialize him in a public park. “We can’t change history,” Mayor A.C. Wharton acknowledged: “We can’t unring a rung bell. But how long do we have to pay fealty to it? That’s what monuments represent. I’m resolved we are going to remove it.”

Some have argued that to remove Confederate monuments would be to “erase history.” So wrote Dallas Morning News columnist Jacquielynn Floyd. Dallas has several shrines to the Confederacy, most notably the Confederate War Memorial in Pioneer Park Cemetery. Floyd explained that she harbors no love for the Confederate cause, but “the statues, these monuments, are part of history. When you start pulling them down and melting them for scrap, that history is erased. Is that what we’re aiming for?” She also distinguished between Confederate flags – which represent white supremacy – and Confederate statues, which she called works of public art. “They may represent a history that many Texans find abhorrent, but that is the history with which we are stuck.” In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked the City Council to declare the bronze statue of Robert E. Lee – atop a 60-foot-tall column in Lee Circle – a “public nuisance.” In response, Floyd noted that “history is full of nuisances, full of awkward truths…Perhaps living with these statues and struggling to find a context for them is a burden of history we just have to shoulder.” She understood wanting to tear them all down. “But erasing our history doesn’t change it. It just makes it easier to forget.”

I would place Floyd in a camp of observers who believe that we ought to keep the statues and simply add extra plaques – or “find a context for them.” To add context, perhaps the plaques would tell about the four million slaves who went free after Lee surrendered. Perhaps they would quote Alexander Stephens, Davis’s vice president, who declared in 1861 that the “corner-stone” of the Confederacy rests “upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Maybe the inscriptions on the statues would make it clear that Confederate officers and soldiers fought to enslave black people. But who really reads the plaques? The statues themselves would still dominate the public spaces.

Some of Floyd’s statements smack of resignation: “That is the history with which we are stuck.” It’s true: the Confederate generals fought for white supremacy. We cannot wipe away their heinous deeds, nor can we alter their despicable decision to wage a war for slavery. But we are not stuck with their faces in our squares, their flags in our national parks and federal cemeteries, their names on our children’s schools.

If the United Daughters of the Confederacy understood power, they also knew something about how history operates. They appreciated that history itself is a dynamic and changeable force, vulnerable to the values of the living.

It’s time to say that the country is theirs no longer. We won’t erase the Confederacy’s actions from our nation’s long history of racism, injustice, and racial violence. We will simply say that we don’t want those faces of terror on our public lands and institutions.

In 1905, Memphis transferred Nathan Bedford Forrest’s remains to what is now Health Sciences Park, adding a new component to the Forrest monument. Valorizing Forrest was part and parcel of an entire system of racial oppression – and also part of a reign of terror. The first decade of the twentieth century was the time when Jim Crow laws proliferated across the South, and when lynchings swept across the region. Building a monument to Forrest was connected to enforcing a larger regime of racial subjugation. More than a century later, we should take those monuments down as part of a larger process – as we commit ourselves to destroying the vestiges of that system of racial oppression.

By Jason Sokol

MORE FROM Jason Sokol

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

American History Charleston Confederate Flag Editor's Picks Race The South