On the Removal of CSA Symbols
Symbols shape our views of the past.
I have written before about my criticisms of the reverence for the symbols of the confederacy (for example, here, here, here, and here, to choose but four). Of the various complaints I have about these symbols is that fact that they were clearly used to oppose civil rights and were symbols of American apartheid.
Steve Chapman has a good piece on this topic at Reason (Confederate Monuments Deserve to Go) which reminds us of the growth of these symbols in the late 1950s and early 1960s:
In 1961, when I was a boy in the West Texas city of Midland, a new high school opened. It was named after Robert E. Lee, for reasons that are obvious: White resentment of the civil rights movement had produced widespread nostalgia for the Confederacy. San Antonio’s Lee High School opened in 1958; Houston’s in 1962.
Midland Lee called its sports teams the Rebels and used the Confederate battle flag as its symbol. Black students didn’t mind, because there weren’t any. They attended a segregated black school.
The general did have a connection to Texas. His last U.S. Army command before the Civil War was at a fort in the Hill Country town of Mason—which has no Lee monument. Gerald Gamel, editor of the Mason County News, ascribes the omission to strong anti-secession sentiment in Mason. That tells you something about why other places honor Confederate heroes.
Indeed (and emphasis mine).
Schools across America were named for Robert E. Lee in 1958, 1960, and 1961 (Montgomery’s Lee HS opened in 1955) for a clear reason, the same reason many states starting flying confederate battle flags at the same time: to display a giant middle finger to those who would deign to mix the races in public schools (and elsewhere). This was the era of the burgeoning civil rights legislation that would culminate in the landmark bills of the 1960s. It was, more pointedly, the era of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). It was the beginning of the end of Jim Crow and legal segregation.
This is the context of the deployment of many symbols that celebrate the confederacy. This context needs to be remembered and understood. It is this context that undercuts the notion that such symbols are about an accurate representation of history or are just harmless symbols of southern pride.*
More broadly, Champman writes in regards to these symbols and the movement (by some) to remove them:
Yet grand memorials were erected across the South to celebrate what the traitors did. The monuments were built by whites at a time when blacks had no political power—a condition those whites were desperate to preserve.
They failed, and they deserved to fail. It’s only fitting that Southerners who reject the legacies of slavery, secession, and Jim Crow would prefer to be rid of these tributes to them.
For a long time, American history was owned by white men and minimized the treatment of blacks, women, Indians, and Latinos. Accommodating our public spaces to their full citizenship doesn’t erase history. It fills in parts that had been shamefully omitted.
The Confederate monuments belong not in places of honor but in museums, as artifacts of past error. They were put up to enshrine an interpretation of the past that has been discredited. Taking them down and putting up different statues is a reminder that in understanding the past, we shape the future.
That which we celebrate shapes the way we view the past. What we honor matters. As such, it is well past time to be recognize the sins of the past, rather than pretending like they should be honored.
As a side note, it is continually amazing to behold reverence for the CSA alongside the very strong patriotism that is also prevalent here in the South.
*I do understand that some people honestly feel that way–but I think that they are in denial about what message those symbols send, if anything to African-American fellow citizens.