All over the South – whether on military bases or in public squares – we have seen battles over the Confederacy and memorials to Confederates or post-Confederate White leaders. Those who oppose changing these memorials fear that history will become victim to an ever-consuming “cancel culture.”
Yet, the truth is that the initial movement to build these memorials to the Confederacy and its supposed “lost cause” were the original cancel culture. Between the end of the Confederacy in 1865 and the Whites-only segregationist governments that arose in the 1880s, lay ten years of biracial, radical Southern state governments that so challenged ideas of White supremacy that both the white North and white South united in erasing them from history.
Instead of merely cancelling these relics of racism, though, proponents of racial equality should dig deep into the wells of our history and embrace the legacy of those biracial coalitions during Reconstruction that fell victim to the original cancel culture.
Immediately following emancipation, African Americans and poor and middle-class Whites worked together to create better, representative state governments. Hardly a perfect coalition (corruption did exist), they founded the Republican Party in every Southern state to wrestle power away from former-slaveholding Confederate Democrats. They elected Black senators, governors, congressmen and countless local leaders. They dedicated themselves to rebuilding the war-torn South, creating the South’s first universal, state-sponsored public education system and drafting the first post-slavery state constitutions. They championed the causes of laborers and fought to improve policing through the hiring of African-American officers. They enacted or attempted to enact land tenancy reforms, criminal justice and new systems for equitable taxation; they built the infrastructure, such as roads, rail tracks and canals, that the ravaged South so desperately needed.
Yet just as these biracial governments began to enact real change in the region, former slaveholders and their sons, increasingly aided by other Whites, began torturing and lynching Republicans, both Black and White, moderate and radical. In long-forgotten racist massacres like the ones in Hamburg, South Carolina and St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, armed Whites murdered thousands of Black men, women and children to overthrow these biracial Reconstruction governments, disenfranchising African Americans for generations. After former slaveholding Confederates and their heirs regained power, they passed laws establishing single-party White rule, imposing segregation and disenfranchising Black and even some poor White voters.
They popularized terms such as scalawags (literally a low-grade farm animal), carpetbaggers and poisoned generations of Americans against the notion that Black equality and White allyship could be the basis of better government. These Reconstruction governments proved that notions of White supremacy and Black inferiority – foundational concepts of our Republic – were all a lie and that made them radical, revolutionary and a threat. For that reason alone, Southern Whites would do whatever it took to not just overthrow them but erase them from history. Fearing memories of a brief past based on equality, it became imperative to adopt the “Lost cause” mythos and build as many statues as they could to honor the leaders who “redeemed” the South for whiteness.
Thus, men such as Alonzo Ransier, the first elected African-American Lt. governor of South Carolina, who led the effort to create public, universal education, died a forgotten street cleaner while Wade Hampton III and the racist Red Shirts, who led the violent overthrow of duly elected governments, have counties, schools, streets and monuments at the U.S. Capitol that bear their names. Even the Whites who allied with the ex-slaves had to be erased. Confederate General William Mahone, who allied with Blacks to run Virginia, and William Holden, the governor of North Carolina who used state troops against the Klan and was impeached for it, are not just forgotten but even vilified in our history books.
History does not need to be replaced, but it certainly needs to be reimagined and better known. Therefore, we should replace these statues with political revolutionaries such as former slave and U.S. Rep. Robert Smalls (R-S.C.). We must honor the memories of the Farmers’ Alliances, the Populists and the Fusionists. We must tell their stories so that our young people realize that change is not only possible, but that it has been done.
The white, antiracist writer Lillian E. Smith wrote in 1951 that for the rapidly changing South, “It is a tremendous responsibility, an awesome and fascinating job for our writers and speakers and teachers and leaders: to find new words for old; to create new images of ourselves without which we cannot live sane lives, to help men fall in love with new ideals, to find new outlets for the old hates and humiliations.”
Let new statues and memorials rise across the South. And let them be monuments not to hate, but to a multiracial dream that was, and that could be.
Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian and writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the author of the award-winning “Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South” and co-editor, with Matthew Hild, of “Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power.”
Chris Richardson, author of the “Historical Dictionary of the Civil Rights Movement,” is a former U.S. diplomat who served in Nigeria, Nicaragua, Pakistan and Spain. He is currently an immigration attorney from South Carolina.