Removing Lost Cause Monuments is the First Step in Dismantling White SupremacyRoundup
tags: memorials, Confederacy, monuments, public history
Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders is a historian of African American history, U.S. history and Civil War memory and is currently an assistant professor in the department of history at the University of Dayton.
Why have protests in the streets about police violence transformed into demands to reckon with Confederate monuments and flags, military bases and even “Gone with the Wind?” Because for over 150 years, black activism for civil rights has demanded it. Since the end of the Civil War, black Americans contested the Lost Cause narrative, the movement in which white Southerners inscribed their myths about the Civil War and slavery into the commemorative landscape and the public sphere. African Americans long understood what activists today also understand: Removing and challenging the symbols of the Lost Cause is an important step to dismantling white supremacy, but it cannot be the only step.
African American activists have never begun or ended with the symbols of the Lost Cause. They decried Confederate flags and monuments while also fighting against racist laws and racial violence in their own times. They coupled their critique of the danger in symbolism with the consequences of this symbolism for the material conditions of African Americans. These ideas are at the root of today’s protests and activists’ demands to eradicate all forms of white supremacy.
On May 10, 1890, John Mitchell Jr., a former slave and the editor of the black newspaper the Richmond Planet, watched the arrival of the Robert E. Lee monument. “Nowhere in all the procession was there a United States flag,” he wrote. “The rebel yell, reinforced by a glorification of the lost cause was everywhere manifest.” He later warned after it was erected: “This glorification of States’ Rights Doctrine, the right of secession, and the honoring of men who represented that cause … will ultimately result in handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood.” Mitchell knew what these monuments and the Lost Cause meant for African Americans, and he knew what this legacy looked like in his own time. The Lost Cause was about more than nostalgia; it was about power.
As an anti-lynching crusader, Mitchell led local boycotts to challenge Jim Crow laws, and he dedicated space on the pages of his newspaper to the topic. In fact, much of Mitchell’s reputation as a “Fighting Editor” was due to his dogged pursuit of factual accounts of lynching to counter the white press bias. He even advocated for armed self-defense for African Americans to protect themselves from white violence. There was a clear connection in Mitchell’s warnings about whom white Southerners honored and the stories they told about Confederate history and his accounts of the violence carried out by them against African Americans.
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