Dr. Karen L. Cox on Confederate Monuments
tags: history,Confederate Monuments,United Daughters of the Confederacy,Lost Cause,ben tumin,skipped history,karen l. cox,udc
With battles over Confederate monuments still brewing, I spoke to Dr. Karen L. Cox, a leading expert on the topic. Dr. Cox is the author of four books, including No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice.
Dr. Cox and I spoke about the enduring white supremacist purpose of Confederate monuments and why battles to remove them are nothing new. Surprisingly, Vanilla Ice also makes an appearance.
A condensed transcript is edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers to Skipped History can access audio of the full conversation here.
Ben: Dr. Cox, it’s a thrill to chat with you.
KLC: Well, I appreciate it. I'm happy to be with you.
Ben: Today I'd like to trace the history of Confederate monuments, and though perhaps a challenging subject to cover over 150 years, hopefully, it won't be a lost cause...
Speaking of which, let's start with the development of Lost Cause mythology. Who concocted it, and was it in any remote way truthful?
KLC: I can answer the last question first—no.
The Lost Cause is essentially a revisionist history of the Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction. It’s really an attempt to deal with Confederate defeat. White southerners thought when they entered the Civil War, they were going to kick Yankee butt and that it would be over very quickly. But, in fact, they were handily defeated, and it was hard for them to come to terms with that.
Edward Pollard, a journalist for the Richmond Examiner, helped them make sense of the South’s loss. In 1867, he published a book called The Lost Cause. It's well over 700 pages (and makes a fine doorstop). In the book, Pollard claims the South lost the war solely because Confederates were outnumbered. He also says the war had been fought over states’ rights, erasing the idea that slavery had ever been part of the war, let alone its central cause. He also praises Confederate generals and more or less paints the South as a superior civilization even though it’s been defeated.
Ben: It's almost like if my soccer team lost, and afterward we were so upset about losing that somebody decided to write a 700-page book about why the other team scored more goals—when in reality, we were just really bad.
Ben: So Lost Cause mythology develops right after the Civil War. How does it become part of the US’ physical landscape?
KLC: Well, Confederate monuments appear on the landscape right away, mainly in cemeteries. That's where they stayed through the end of Reconstruction in 1877.
Then, when federal troops leave the region and, basically, former Confederates retake control of local governments, you begin to see monuments move outside of cemeteries as a backlash against the gains Black citizens made during Reconstruction.
Ben: In No Common Ground you also talk about the erection of monuments outside of courthouses.
KLC: Right, so that’s the next phase: placing monuments on courthouse lawns.
This new construction accompanies the rise of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the organization responsible for the vast majority of Confederate monuments that are built in the South. The Daughters formed in 1894, and they took off quickly as an organization. In this same time period that the UDC grows, from the 1890s through 1920, the vast majority of monuments were built.
Most of them were adjacent to courthouses, a very purposeful way of signaling support for Jim Crow laws. It’s in that backdrop that monuments go up, both as physical, tangible manifestations of the Lost Cause and also as statements in front of courthouses about communities’ white supremacist priorities.
Ben: Why does this construction slow down entering the 1920s?
KLC: Primarily because of World War I. Although organizations like the UDC continue to build monuments in the 30s, the pace slows from, I don’t know, maybe 400 a decade to 75 a decade. But yeah, obviously it continues. A new generation of “daughters” comes into the UDC, and they still build monuments, still seek out support for their projects from politicians.
During the Civil Rights era, there was a slight uptick in monument building, in part because of the Civil War Centennial, a series of events from 1961 to 1965. At the same time that we saw the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) pass, the commemoration of the Civil War was occurring, at least in the South, and white southerners were still perpetuating the same sorts of myths about the Confederacy and building monuments in the spirit of the Lost Cause.
Ben: Could you talk a bit about the longstanding, maybe more overlooked tradition of opposition to Confederate monuments?
KLC: From very early on, there has been a critique of the Lost Cause and monuments, with Frederick Douglass being probably the first and most obvious example. He predicted, “monuments to the Lost Cause will prove monuments of folly.” W. E. B. Du Bois later toured the South and said a better inscription on the Confederate monuments he saw would be, "sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.”
During the Jim Crow period, one place where I found many critiques was in the Chicago Defender, the nation's leading black newspaper. Columnists were very vocal about what they thought about these monuments; that they were erected to honor traitors to the US. One guy says something about the monuments teaching future generations of white children to hate “our race.”
So Black citizens always saw monuments as a problem in terms of race relations, and during the 60s you begin to see much more publicly visible protests against Confederate monuments. For example, during the Meredith March, or the March Against Fear, a major demonstration that included thousands of activists in 1966, marchers rallied in various cities in the Mississippi Delta. Usually, the place where they assembled was around a Confederate monument, because that would often be the center of town. And in a way, they were reclaiming these spaces in the name of democratic freedoms like voting.
In another of many examples, that same year, a civil rights and voting activist named Sammy Younge Jr. was murdered for trying to desegregate a whites-only bathroom in Tuskegee, Alabama. The man who killed him was acquitted, and in response, protestors defaced a nearby Confederate monument in the way that we’re more likely to associate with activism over the last few years. They painted “Black Power” across the monument.
Ben: Meanwhile, monument construction continues, right? Not at a rapid pace, but I know for example that the largest Confederate memorial was dedicated in the early 70s.
KLC: Yeah, that would be Stone Mountain in Georgia. It’s enormous. Spiro Agnew, vice president at the time, attended the dedication. You know Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore was the original sculptor of Stone Mountain.
Ben: Wow, I had no idea! Sounds like Gutzon should be on lists with Nickelback and Vanilla Ice for his artistic prowess.
KLC: Ha! Maybe so.
Ben: Going back for a second, as more Black politicians were elected in the 70s and 80s, there was increasing resistance to monuments, is that right?
KLC: Yeah. So for most of the Civil Rights Movement, the symbol that most offended was the Confederate battle flag, which is often located on a flagpole adjacent to a Confederate monument. The first time I saw evidence of a suggestion to actually remove a monument was in Shreveport, Louisiana in the late 80s. You then begin to see this kind of push around the country with support from groups like the NAACP.
And yet, though Confederate monuments have long been on Black activists’ radars, monuments only really became part of the national discourse after the Charleston Church Massacre of 2015, when Dylan Roof murdered nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was obviously motivated by his interactions with neo-Confederate groups, and other kinds of white and racist groups, which lead to the Confederate battle flag coming off the grounds of the South Carolina Capital—and then to larger discussions about other Confederate symbols like monuments. Then, with the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the conversations reach a fever pitch.
In total, since Charleston, over a hundred monuments have been removed. Over seven hundred remain. The truth is that Confederate monuments have always represented white supremacy and systemic racism, both of which are still pervasive.
Ben: We started the conversation in the 1860s and are talking about similar dynamics today. Still, you write that “with the removal of monuments since 2015, the Lost Cause’s days may be numbered. And with that, perhaps there is common ground.”
Do you still feel that way?
KLC: My feeling is that, if we’re on the same page about history, if we’re learning the same history together, then maybe there is potential for us to come together and for the Lost Cause’s days to be numbered.
The thing is, for 150 years white people have been invested in rewriting history because they see it as a tool of power. Whenever there’s been racial progress, they’ve talked about how to influence what children are learning in schools.
This is why we still hear Edward Pollard’s lies today. For generations, proponents of the Lost Cause have feared that if children grow up and learn the truth, they're likely to reject the current power structures. They don't want that happening.
Ben: Well, I think that also speaks to the importance of the kind of history that you bring to light. Thank you for all of your work and for being here today. It’s been a pleasure.
KLC: Well, thank you. It's been good to talk this out.
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