Every single Confederate statue in America should come
As soon as possible.
It’s not because of what they are, it’s because of why
These statues were not erected to depict the truth of the Civil
War, but rather to serve as everlasting symbols of white
I spoke on Thursday with one of America’s preeminent Civil
War historians, Eric Foner, the author
America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863 –
Foner explained that “putting up statues is a
statement about the present.”
That is to say two things.
First, that the telling of history is not static — it
changes with society and our understanding of ourselves. Second,
those historical monuments are less about the period they depict,
and more about the society that erects them.
The American societies that erected these statues — at the
moment in history in which they were erected — did so with a
clear purpose in mind, to show that white supremacy was the law
of the land. That is something this country can no longer abide.
And so they must come down.
Most of the Confederate monuments in the United States were
commissioned and erected during times of racial strife, or by
organizations that championed white supremacy. They
were built as part of a concerted effort to glorify and sanitize
the history of the Confederacy. Think about it this way: If you
can sanitize the symbols’ ugly history, you can put them
But, that doesn’t really change their meaning in the hearts and
minds of those who know the truth.
So white supremacists in the South built a new truth. They
said that the Civil War was about tariffs or about state’s rights
or about any number of things historians have cited aside from
racism and slavery. That way, these symbols could be innocuous —
just a regular piece of the ebb and flow of history.
“Now this was all a white point of view,” Foner said. “It
developed in the 1890s and was a part of white reconciliation in
the North and South. Blacks were left out of it.”
Part of that reconciliation was allowing the South to be as
racist as it wanted to be. In the 1890s statues were erected as
the region shook off vestiges of the Reconstruction and reclaimed
its space for white supremacists. State after state took voting
rights away from black people, segregation took hold, and it was
a peak time of terrorism against blacks.
“The Confederacy became a symbol of white supremacy,” Foner
explained. “The ultimate message is that it’s correct for white
people to rule in the South. If they wanted inclusive monuments
they would’ve put up statues of black leaders.”
During the 1920s and 1930s, another era of Confederate statue
mania, the Ku Klux Klan was at one of its most politically
powerful points in history. It is no coincidence that rampant
racism and xenophobia led to immigration restrictions in
Of course, these statues didn’t just erect themselves.
Organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy
(sounds innocent enough, right?) worked to put monuments all over
the country. That’s how, as journalist and historian Erin
Blakemore points out,
San Diego ended up with a Jefferson Davis plaque (it was
recently removed), and states like Arizona have Jefferson Davis
was just tarred and feathered).
And of course, we should note that the Daughters of the
were in league with the Ku Klux Klan.
“Half the time when historians are writing, they’re writing about
the present,” Foner told Business Insider. Because of that, the
way historians have told the story of the Civil War has changed
dramatically over the years.
Right now we are in a moment where we can, again, try to set the
Until the Civil Rights Movement, slavery was taken out of the
forefront of America’s narrative of the Civil War. Confederate
General Robert E. Lee was seen as a symbol of reconciliation and
paired with Lincoln as a peacemaker, but of course, that was a
It completely ignored Lee’s thoughts about slavery, race, and
politics. And perhaps more importantly, it ignored the political
reality of the Confederacy.
The Confederacy was a society that was built on slavery, that
sent men to fight and die in the name of white supremacy. Slavery
was in the Confederacy’s founding documents. In a speech
outlining the values of the new nation, Vice President Alexander
Stephens repudiated the US Constitution, which claimed all men
were created equal.
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite
idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone 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 upon this great physical,
philosophical, and moral truth.”
But Foner has always found that to this day, especially in
South, people insist on defending the nature of the
“You know I’m not accusing anyone here of anything,” he
said “There’s not a single person here who owned a slave, it’s
not an affront. Just read what the secession convention said. If
you want to honor your ancestors take their words
As one South Carolina secessionist, Edmund Bryan, said in
1850 — perverting the words of Revolutionary War hero Patrick
Henry — “Give me slavery or give me death.”
He wasn’t, as many have said of President Donald Trump, to be
taken literally not seriously. He wasn’t sending an errant tweet.
He was saying he’d rather die than give up his
During our conversation, Foner asked me: when Trump is talking
about saving history and culture, whose culture is it?
He answered his own question: “Not black people’s.”
And, he said, “When these Republicans say ‘Oh I’m against
bigotry” this is baloney these guys have been playing on bigotry
in subtly for years.”
Republicans have known who they were talking to since the
days of Nixon and Goldwater. They were talking to people upset
about equality of opportunity for non-whites.
The only way to stop this is to call these symbols
what they are — symbols of white dominance and black subjugation.
In fact, they’re more than that — they’re about subjugating
anyone who isn’t white and Christian, they’re about subjugating
Jewish people, Muslims, and the new immigrants that have come to
this country. They’re about giving legitimacy to the white
supremacists who claimed these symbols for their own.
There is no way to give these statues new meaning until we
give them their true meaning. It’s time to take them
down and put them where they belong, in places where we can
contextualize why they were erected, and why they will never be
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.