Last week, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu oversaw the removal of four Confederate monuments. It was just the latest chapter in the contentious battle over the official display of Confederate symbols.
But what is less well-known is the actual history of these symbols after the Civil War — and this history sheds important light on the debate. Confederate symbols have not always been a part of American or Southern life. They largely disappeared after the Civil War. And when they reappeared, it was not because of a newfound appreciation of Southern history.
Instead, as we argue in a newly published article, white Southerners reintroduced these symbols as a means of resisting the Civil Rights movement. The desire to maintain whites’ dominant position in the racial hierarchy of the United States was at the root of the rediscovery of Confederate symbols.
To understand what motivated the newfound interest in Confederate symbols, we followed the historical record. We examined a range of documents, including the Congressional Record, debates in state legislatures and other period documents. Our goal was to understand the goals of those supporting Confederate symbols, using their own words in many cases. Here is what we found.