Liberals Shouldn’t Let the Fight over Confederate Statues Dominate Public Debate

tags: Charlottesville, Confederate Monuments

Dr. John L. Godwin is the author of Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way: Portrait of a Community in the Era of Civil Rights Protest (2000). He is currently writing an historical autobiography about growing up in the South and discovering history in the civil rights era.

On the question of what to do with Confederate monuments, I have to agree somewhat with the critics, including North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, who has called for their eventual removal. The Civil War statuary set in place in an age of racial segregation seems to occupy a position too prominent in public squares across the South. Historians have observed the sense in which they were the direct expression of the white supremacist movement that led to horrific lynchings, mob violence, and the enactment of the Jim Crow laws. Surely it would benefit the region to have a change of mind and a change of heart that might follow from a rearrangement of the public persona. I say this, however, with some reservations. Today we live in a fast moving pluralistic society of shopping malls, super jets, mass distributed newspapers, television, radio and the internet. And the public square has already been reconstructed and deconstructed in many respects that reflect our more complex world. Governor Cooper’s recommendation is largely based on recognition of the debacle in Charlottesville and the aftershock at Durham. Where protesters and vandals face off with Nazi thugs and loyalist defenders in violent confrontations, there is a clear need to protect the public safety.

But it seems to me that there is a clear fallacy that has been overlooked in the attempt to achieve social reform through cultural purification. The two connect only through the permeable nebulosity of the popular mind. Confederate flags, academic halls named after John C. Calhoun, and Confederate monuments function chiefly as cultural symbols. For some they are offensive and evoke racism—almost in the same way as Swastikas or the Third Reich banner. For others they have a different meaning. Much as I agree especially with those who reject the movement symbols employed by racists, I cannot bring myself to go the full route of the cultural iconoclasts. And the reasons are both a matter of priorities and of history. If we allow the demand for purification to distract us from what is really important in contemporary politics, we are making a mistake. Protestors should approach our politics more directly by focusing on the issues that are more than symbolic because of how they touch people’s lives. Invariably, those of us who grow up in the South viewing the monuments as symbolic of the heroic sacrifice of our ancestors in the Civil War, have to stop, back up, and rethink the experience of the region. Many people are unwilling to do this, and for that they are wrong. Like the Confederates, they want to ignore the experience of African Americans. Looking for a rationale by which to defend the existence of the monuments may perhaps be doomed to failure especially for this reason.

But I do think that in their capacity as historical markers or memorials, or as historical art, the Confederate statuary are not without value. They were set in place by a broad cultural consensus after the war that was more than mere racism, but involved the collective emotional experience that grew from the war—the sense of grief, suffering, sacrifice and honor to the departed who served and gave their lives. And this must be kept in mind. The Vietnam War was not exactly a glorious cause—but we have found a need to memorialize and to honor the soldiers who fought and gave their lives in that conflict. Monuments in this sense help us to connect with people and with human suffering, even the folly of war. In a similar way the Confederate monuments can only be justified by getting outside the usual frame of reference by looking at the collective experience of the great mass of Southern people and the wider tragedy of the Civil War. The Confederate monuments do not merely represent the Confederate cause any more than they represent the white supremacist views of those who typically erected them. From a wider cultural perspective, they represent the collective regional experience of the war, the patriotic devotion and valor of the tens of thousands of Southern whites—often from small farms or non-slaveholding stock, even the women, the widows and the young boys who fought or labored in the cause, or those who were merely deluded, who wrongly clung to the old Constitution and fought for “states rights” or other abstract notions.

As expressions of popular experience in a time of war, the South’s Confederate monuments have a limited value. Yet they ought to remind us of the collective suffering, delusion, and the heroism in a broader sense of those who fought or merely suffered through a tragic, needless and misguided conflict, enduring the horror, anguish and sacrifice of the war. In this regard they are different from the Confederate battle flag, for they involve the viewer in a narrative of war, evoking the region’s history in a richer and more complex way. Historical contextualists who view the monuments in terms of the limited assumptions of those who erected them ought to look beyond the demagogues and the racist ideologues and consider the wider social context. Some of the monuments rise to the level of art, others are merely markers that drift into decorative anonymity. I think that in social terms, there is also a very clear sense in which they represent the collective determination of Southern whites to say in effect, “we are here.” Having survived a horrible conflict, Southern whites as repatriated Americans needed to send that message. Clearly in the context of the time it was bound up with the racist assumptions that were commonly shared during that era—yet we should acknowledge the ways in which that message also transcended it. Fear that the stigma of slave ownership and Civil War treason would encumber them with a second class citizenship also drove many into a defensive posture that has lingered to this day.

Progressive minded Americans who want to advance the progressive causes of our time are making a mistake by forgetting all this. Southern whites understandably suffer from an inability to communicate it effectively, but they typically feel the issue more deeply than they are willing to admit. Having ancestors who wore the Confederate gray gives them much to think about, and their human limitations become obvious. Too often they avoid history and cling stubbornly to myths and distortions rather than attempt to examine it. The removal of Confederate monuments by itself will not provide a substitute for the effort that requires.

Those who would change the mind of the South should appeal to it directly, tell the story, speak to the issues and join in the demand for more and better history teaching. Meanwhile those who insist on attacking Confederate monuments as symbols of white supremacy and racism assume a limited view of them. Their struggle to produce a more culturally homogenized America in the end may only give rise to newer and more sinister symbols. While those who insist on defending monuments by resort to Swastikas, swinging clubs, bigotry, violent assaults or other racist associations—who insist that the monuments sustain their twisted notions of white supremacy—they are of course the real losers. Without a doubt, every racist brawl, every slogan tattooed or spray painted, and every vicious crime committed in defense of the Confederate monuments dooms them more surely to the margins of history.

Perhaps it is appropriate to remove Confederate monuments and get them out of public squares and in to parks and museums where they can be viewed and studied with objectivity and discretion. But if the process turns into a drawn out ordeal of confrontation, accusation and resistance as we have seen over the Confederate flag, I suspect that the process may have an unlooked for meaning. While the protracted conflict over cultural symbols goes on, we wake up to the realization that public dialogue on the real issues—the soundness of our elections, the effectiveness of our healthcare system, the justice of our economy, the impartiality of law enforcement, the protection of the natural environment or the education of our children—has suffered by neglect. And our world is sadly worse off—because we exhausted ourselves on cultural symbols while the human needs of our society went unmet.

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