Removing statues of Confederate generals from honorary public places has been a goal of civil rights movements for decades. That objective raises the question of why such statues should be removed, who has the authority to remove them, and what conditions make the removals meaningful. A look at why and when the statues were erected is helpful in evaluating such concerns.
Most of the disputed works came into being in the 1890s-1920s when the established Southern white elites had regained their political power. Their racial agenda was to legally segregate African Americans and limit their rights. Key to their plans was to create a system making it almost impossible for African Americans to vote even though they were an absolute majority in many counties. The statues were placed in government settings to assert that while generals may have lost on the battlefield, the “way of life” they had fought for had endured. Complementing the statues was the incorporation of Confederate symbols into state flags.
The courage and fighting abilities of most Confederate generals is not an issue. Many generals, however, were ardent racists. Six were founding members of the Ku Klux Klan (1865). The first Grand Wizard of the KKK was General Nathan Bedford Forrest. During the Civil War, Forrest had been in command at the Battle of Fort Pillow where a hundred African American union troops who had surrendered were massacred, a war crime, then and now.
Advocates for retaining the statues argue they symbolize states resisting an overbearing federal government. This is nonsense. When Southern views held sway in the federal government, the South considered it proper that free states conform to national law. This view was aggressively asserted by the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which compelled all states and citizens to return runaway slaves to their “owners.” Severe punishments were in place for any who ignored the Act. The legislation also put at risk African Americans who were not runaway slaves. If accused of being a runaway, African Americans were denied trial by jury and could not even testify at hearings about their status.
Another false state’s rights argument was the assertion that the newly elected Abraham Lincoln, in defiance of the Constitution, was planning to free all the slaves. Abraham Lincoln and the vast majority of his supporters, however, were not abolitionists. What they objected to was allowing the spread of slavery into the newly opening western territories. In Kansas and Missouri, family-based white farmers had discovered they could not compete with Southerners who arrived with wagonloads of slaves. If slavery was allowed in these new territories and states, the immediate and long-term well-being of whites would be severely jeopardized.
Southern extremists also disregarded the reality that although Lincoln had won handily in the electoral college, he had won less than 40% of the popular vote, 60% going to his three opponents. Had the South stayed in the union, it could have used its large number of Senators and Congressmen to build coalitions to thwart any extreme Lincoln initiatives. In four years, the South could have worked in concert with northern Democrats to deny Lincoln a second term.
Instead of using these democratic norms, seven states seceded from the union to form the Confederate States of America before Lincoln was even inaugurated. Four more joined the Confederacy before it began the Civil War by firing on a union fort in South Carolina. The war would take 650,000-800,000 American lives. Most battles and considerable physical devastation took place in Southern states which left the region impoverished for more than a century.
The consensus of African Americans and their supporters is that just as putting the statues in front of government offices showed defiance of constitutional liberties for blacks, their removal would demonstrate an apology or at least remorse. They do not believe the statues should destroyed but relocated to museums and appropriate battlefields.
How the statues are relocated is as meaningful as their actual removal. If seen as a sop to quell demonstrations, a new round of turmoil would be inevitable. We must assume that there will be elements that want to retain the statues for the same reasons they were erected, and there will be self-righteous grouplets who want to tear them down as soon as possible by any means necessary. In that regard, the recent removal of statues in a number of Southern states by elected state officials is heartening. Many Southern governors and legislators have sensed their constituents have undergone a change in consciousness about the symbolism embodied in the statues.
The decision to remove Confederate statues is another step forward in our unending efforts to more fully realize the dream of the Declaration of Independence to create a democratic society that strives to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all its citizens.