Opinion | Civil Rights

Removing Confederate statues remains a monumental challenge

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

This month, at the order of the City Council of Charlottesville, Va., workers removed a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from what had been Lee Park. Next to go was a statue of Gen. Stonewall Jackson from a park nearby that had been named for him. Also in the crosshairs was a statue of Meriweather Lewis & William Clark, who explored the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, and Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian who appears to be crouching near them in a manner some consider subservient. "I'm really happy it's a boring morning," John Mason, a professor of History at the University of Virginia, declared, because "boring means that no bad things happened. The ordinariness of the occasion is fine."

Although "only" 200 people showed up to watch, the occasion was anything but ordinary. The initial city council plan to remove Lee's statue had prompted the "Unite the Right" rally, which included white supremacists and neo-Nazis with Tiki torches, in August 2017. The violence that ensued added momentum to a movement to remove Confederate statues from Charlottesville and across the country.

That it took four years to get it done in Charlottesville should remind us that removing Confederate monuments remains a monumental challenge.

Most of the statues and symbols, it's worth noting, were removed by government order or by protesters themselves following three disturbing events: Dylan Roof's murder of nine worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charlotte, S.C., in 2015, the "Unite the Right Rally" in 2017, and the killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis in 2020.

Most important, and not very well known, is that as of February 2021, some 2,100 Confederate symbols, 704 of them monuments, have not been removed. Moreover, support from Americans - 41 percent of whom favored transferring the statues from public places to museums, 31 percent of whom wanted to keep them where they are but add plaques to provide context, and 16 percent of whom wanted no change - may have peaked in the summer of 2020.

The case for removal is compelling. Confederate statues and symbols do not preserve American history. They distort the past by promoting the myth of the South's "Lost Cause" and honoring secessionists who waged war against the United States to preserve slavery and white supremacy, using the pretext that they were defending states' rights. Moreover, many Confederate monuments were erected in the 1890s and the first two decades of the 20th century (an era in which segregation was codified as law in southern states, the Ku Klux Klan was revived, poll taxes and grandfather clauses prevented African Americans from voting, and lynchings occurred just about every week). Confederate statues were often placed outside courthouses, in all likelihood to remind African Americans who hoped for fair trials that they would get a "white man's justice."

Despite the apoplectic opposition of Donald Trump, the U.S. government has done quite a lot to eliminate Confederate symbols. In 2020, the Marine Corps and the Pentagon banned the Confederate flag from all events and installations. In January 2021, the House of Representatives and Senate overrode President Trump's veto and stripped the names of Confederate leaders from all military bases. A few weeks ago, the House voted 285-120 (with 67 Republicans in the majority) to remove from the U.S. Capitol Confederate statues and a bust of Roger Taney, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who wrote the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857 (in which he declared Blacks were "so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect"). The legislation is now in the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.

Unfortunately, the recent action of the Charlottesville City Council is an anomaly. Except for Virginia, southern states and localities have responded slowly or not at all. To be sure, in 2020 Mississippi removed the Confederate symbol from the state's flag. But half the legislative bodies in the South that considered removing monuments have decided not to do so.

Momentum for removing Confederate statues and symbols has stalled.

Racial justice activists, with good reason, are preoccupied with protecting voting rights from restrictions - aimed primarily at African Americans and Latinos - enacted by many red state legislatures in 2021. And as media coverage of Confederate symbols has declined, many Americans appear to have lost interest, as they so often do.

Shame on us. Confederate monuments are - or should be - an affront to all patriotic Americans. It's high time we repealed and replaced them.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of "Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century."