Statues are often among the first casualties of regime change. In July 1776, a mob of patriots attacked a statue of King George III that stood in Lower Manhattan, hacking it up to melt into bullets for the Continental Army.
In April 2003, television networks around the world showed joyous Baghdad citizens toppling a gigantic bronze Saddam Hussein, providing an iconic image of the Iraqi dictator’s fall. (The U.S. military had delivered sledgehammers, rope, a large crane, manpower, the press pool, and a great deal of encouragement — a story that didn’t fully come to light until many years later.)
Sometimes the regime change takes a little longer. That’s how we should look at images of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson being lifted through the night sky in Baltimore; of protesters stomping on a Confederate soldier statue in Durham, N.C.; and of alt-right battalions storming Charlottesville to rescue a doomed Lee memorial. It should also shape how we read President Trump’s defiant response to the violence in Charlottesville.
Just like in 1776 and 2003, the regime that’s toppling right now — or at least teetering — is the same one that built the monuments. But that regime isn’t the Confederate States of America, which already toppled pretty conclusively back at Appomattox in 1865. The statues — like countless others across the South — were erected not under the stars and bars of the Confederacy, but instead under the stars and stripes of the United States.
The current fight is only partly about the true meaning of the Civil War and the deeds or misdeeds of men in gray coats. Those statues went up for other reasons, and the argument today is about why we, as a nation — the reunited U.S.A. — put those monuments up in our public spaces in the first place. Most important now, it’s about why we have let them stay there for so long.
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The statues in Charlottesville and Durham were both installed in the midst of a Confederate monument-building campaign that lasted for decades and took place long after the war it commemorated. In fact, both were unveiled in the very same month: May 1924.
That’s more than coincidental. The Civil War was still not so distant: any black Southerner over sixty had probably been born a slave. The last veterans were in their eighties and nineties, and their passing loosed a gush of “greatest generation”-style nostalgia in both North and South. Photographs of statue dedications on Confederate Memorial Day (still an official holiday in six southern states) show white-mustachioed men in fading uniforms, holding ceremonial trowels.
Perhaps equally relevant, though, are period photographs of more chilling celebrations: thousands of white-hooded men marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, and burning crosses at enormous gatherings in both North and South.
In the early 1920s, America was in the grip of a huge revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Its recruits were responding partly to the growing movement for black civil rights, which had been emboldened by the millions of African Americans who had contributed to the U.S. victory in World War I. Many native-born whites also felt threatened by the immigrants who were once again landing in large waves at Ellis Island — and competing for jobs in the tight postwar labor market. 1924 was the year of the infamous Immigration Act, which almost shut down entry for Jews, Italians, Greeks, and other “undesirable” groups, while completely excluding everyone from an “Asiatic Barred Zone.”
The 1920s Klan was itself a kind of Civil War reenactment. The original organization of white-robed Confederate veterans had lain dormant since the Reconstruction era, but was revived by the Hollywood epic “Birth of a Nation.” The new Klan was far larger and more pervasive, claiming as many as five million members. In Charlottesville, a newspaper reported that the local chapter “numbers among its members many of our able and influential citizens, and it is here to stay.” In Durham, a local “Grand Dragon” made headlines in April 1924 when he spoke before an audience of more than a thousand people in nearby Raleigh. The Grand Dragon — who made no effort to hide his identity under a hood— also happened to be a judge on the North Carolina superior court.
Nationally, too, the Klan was flexing its political muscle, with both of the major parties steeling themselves for controversy at their upcoming presidential nominating conventions. At the Democratic one, in New York, conservatives defeated a platform resolution condemning recent Klan violence, winning by three votes. Hundreds of triumphant delegates joined a vast crowd of hooded celebrants at a cross-burning rally known as “the Klanbake.” This is the context in which one Southern city after another erected statues to the heroes of a war that had ended 60 years earlier.
The springtime dedications of Confederate statues in Charlottesville and Durham weren’t like those rallies: No hooded Klansmen marched. That was part of their implicit appeal. The Confederate nostalgia embodied in the statues offered a soft-serve version of racial domination, one whose public image involved girls in white dresses laying bouquets of flowers, not men in white sheets burning crosses. The hardliners, robes off, joined the celebrations. So did the moderate, pro-business boosters of the New South, some of whom publicly condemned the Klansmen as “terrorists,” while pointing out that “only” 16 Americans were lynched in 1924, down from 57 in 1922. Dreamy images of Southern sentimentalism set plenty of hearts aflutter among white Northerners, too, and in the national press.
What Confederate monuments offered, by framing their purpose as a familiar lionization of war heroes, was a kind of white supremacism that everyone could rally around. (In a few communities, organizers went so far as to recruit a few handpicked African Americans to march at the back of the parade.) It also laid claim to a history that didn’t belong to the new immigrants: if the Civil War was truly America’s defining moment, what did it mean if your family hadn’t been there?
But the monument builders’ vision wasn’t backward-looking and parochial — quite the opposite. It was to build a triumphant American future on the ideas that had been defeated in the war. At the Charlottesville statue’s dedication, one of the two keynote speakers extolled Lee as “the idol of every Southern heart — aye, of every human heart, North and South, East and West.” Gazing up at a Confederate flag that flew nearby, he hailed it as “that starry flag of the world’s heart and hope, that shall yet float in universal triumph over land and sea.” The other keynoter called Lee “an ideal of a whole land” who “symbolized the future.”
Those two speakers weren’t Grand Dragons of the KKK: they were the presidents of Washington and Lee University and the University of Virginia. Both institutions barred African Americans. And not only were Charlottesville’s public schools segregated in 1924, the town didn’t even have a high school for black citizens: authorities considered a ninth-grade education sufficient.
Monuments mark public spaces like dogs mark trees: This place is ours, they say. It is no accident that the Durham statue, like so many others in county seats across the South, was installed in front of the courthouse — a place where sentences were decreed. Such sentences weren’t always handed down by judges and juries. Throughout the long, awful saga of mass lynchings in America, mobs treated courthouse lawns as ideal places to make public statements. In front of a Texas courthouse in May 1922, a crowd of whites tied a young black man to a stake and burned him alive.
Even southern leaders who condemned such barbarity made it clear that they weren’t speaking up for black civil rights. After a 1919 lynching not far from Durham, the governor of North Carolina admonished citizens: “All the power and all the processes of the law are in the hands of white men, and yet this mob savagely denied to a helpless negro prisoner the right to stand before a white judge and a white jury and receive a white man’s justice.”
That was the power structure that the monument-builders expected to endure. When one of the Charlottesville speakers closed his address with an image of the statue’s enduring place among future generations —“here it shall stand during the ages at the center of their lives” — he wasn’t talking about the 1860s. He was talking about us.
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When has America not faced a critical moment in its history of racial strife? Practically every year out of the past 400 can be tagged with one dismal milestone or another. The citizens of Baltimore installed their monuments in 1887 (blacks barred from major-league baseball), 1903 (new Jim Crow laws and voting disenfranchisement across the South), 1917 (white mobs in East St. Louis kill forty African Americans, launching a six-year nationwide spree of race riots), 1948 (Strom Thurmond’s “Dixiecrats” leave the Democratic Party and nominate him for president).
White dominion has hardly vanished in 21st-century America. Just look at a roster of corporate CEOs, or Trump appointees, or congressional leadership in both parties. Every year still has its dismal milestones. Yet for the past half century or so, each year has brought happier milestones as well, most notably 2008, with the election of an African- American president.
As the nation grows browner and browner, the fantasy of white supremacist unanimity—the dream that placed those marble Confederates across the South—seems increasingly far-fetched. The justice dispensed in American courthouses and prisons is still a long way from race-blind: when black defendants stand before white judges, as they usually do, they often receive disproportionately harsh sentences. But today sometimes white defendants stand before black judges, too, a scenario that would have been unthinkable in 1924.
Trump’s presidency is a kind of rearguard action for an America that used to be; his whole campaign promised a “greater,” whiter America that looks a lot like 1924. The right-wing extremists’ chant in Charlottesville, “You will not replace us,” captures his entire political message in five words. So it should be no surprise when he reflexively defends Confederate monuments and suggests that Lee and Jackson are no different from Washington and Jefferson—ignoring the fact that two of those built the nation, and the other two fought to rip it apart.
Nor is it so surprising that anti-racism activists, seeking to keep the momentum rolling in the face of major setbacks, should try to gain ground by toppling the surviving monuments of white supremacy.
The statues have stayed up for so long because, like so many other features of our everyday landscape, they became so familiar that we hardly even noticed they were there. Some might say the same thing happened with white supremacy: pervasive, familiar, and — at least to many whites —invisible.
Ironically, today’s white supremacist defense of Confederate monuments — and the president’s support — will likely hasten their demise. When neo-Nazis with torches rally around old statues, they highlight precisely the thing their sponsors in the 1920s were trying to veil with history. Suddenly those statues are no longer invisible features of the American landscape. Literally or figuratively, they’re silhouetted against a backdrop of flames.
Less extreme nationalists who defend the statues — including President Trump —are likewise doing themselves no favors. If they’re arguing for the inherent superiority of “Western civilization” and the purity of America’s democratic heritage, do they really want to take selfies alongside guys who led a massive pro-slavery insurrection against the United States, killing three quarters of a million people in the process?
If toppling Confederate statues is indeed part of a long, super-slow-motion regime change, that’s reason for optimism, no matter what the president says. Will the removals in Baltimore, Durham, and Charlottesville ultimately look like the one in Baghdad, which didn’t deliver what it promised? Or will it resemble the hacking-up of King George, which heralded a lasting, if still imperfect, revolution? Maybe it’s too soon to say. But my money’s still on 1776.
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