How Much Impact Do Confederate Monuments Have on America’s Conscience?

conf. monument in shreveport la

Last week, I engaged in a conversation about Confederate monuments and statues in a Facebook group for which I am a member. In reading their responses and comments, I realized I had assumed that the reason why Confederate monuments were made was solely for the admiration of whatever honorable deed the people from those cities in the South believed that person performed. It came about in that conversation a news story about the motive of some of the people who asked to have many of those monuments erected. Gary Shapiro of The New York Times writes of the statues that were erected on a Richmond, Virginia, street called Monument Avenue that “they were erected 35 to 50 years after the war. Records show that they were meant to legitimize and dignify the white supremacist regime that had taken hold of Virginia.” Conversely, I had read a couple of news stories in which a family member of a Confederate soldier and veterans groups had requested statues erected in memory of them, but it doesn’t seem to be the majority on why these monuments/statues were created.

This article and the heated discussions blanketing social media prompted me to look into this more deeply. On Facebook, I decided to ask my friends questions about this subject matter. Ultimately, I ended up with 17 participants, the majority of which are white. I did make an effort to reach out to my friends of color, but I’m afraid their schedules didn’t align with my window of taking interviews. Nevertheless, I carried out my interviews to gain knowledge on people’s perspectives of Confederate monuments. My friends appreciated this venue of mine to share their thoughts and feelings without arguments and debates. I believe their comments were insightful and their suggestions helpful on how to bridge the racial divisions still simmering under the surface that once every few years bubbles over.

The chart below shows the interviewees’ responses to one of my questions. The interviewees’ names for the purpose of addressing them in this article are: Kelly, Concetta, Candice, Jill, Tim, Richard, Joni, Lee, Gabriel, George, Amy, Nicholas, Melissa, Tina, Jennifer, Julian, and Tony.

corrected monument chart

Jennifer from New York, who wanted all Confederate monuments to be removed from public places explained, “They are honoring those who showed the USA no honor. Therefore, they do not belong on public property.”

North Carolinian, Kelly, did not want any of the monuments removed. She said, “I think this is just going to divide us more than we already are. That’s like segregating our history.”

Candice from Florida concurred with Kelly in not removing the Confederate monuments, saying, “For me, it boils down to the fact that there’s nothing in the Constitution that ensures we will be protected from offense. Rather than try and assume what it feels like to be a descendant of slaves, I can try to explain my stance from a personal viewpoint. I lived through the Vietnam era. As a child, I suffered abuse at the hands of a recently returned veteran of that war. That era holds painful memories for me. Many things can trigger those memories, including memorials to those veterans, yet, I would never demand to have those memories removed to protect my feelings.

History shapes us, forms us, and influences how we react to or view things. We can’t simply erase those things that are painful or ugly. When I see or hear something that reminds me of those painful spots, I may feel hurt, or sad, but mostly I compare those times to where I am now and try to see my strength and how far I’ve come. From another non personal perspective, I see people out protesting and all of a sudden having problems with statues or memorials of which they’ve never before given a second thought before someone in the media sector somewhere told them they should. Like Pavlov’s dogs, someone rang a bell and now all the puppies are salivating. So, while I feel empathy and understanding for the few people who honestly do have sincere emotional reactions, I feel most people are simply reacting to the bell.”

Kelly also took a very personal view of what it means to her having the monuments removed, saying, “I am feeling quite offended, not because of color, but you are wanting to change “my” history – the history where I was born and raised. Everyone deserves his/her own history. I don’t want to take away what Martin Luther King did or said, but don’t take away my ancestors. I think what Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad did was fascinating and should be spoken of proudly, but what Grant and Lee did should also be celebrated.”

Kelly and Candice’s answers, especially Kelly’s, in my belief, shows her identity is tied to her subculture within the American culture, and therefore, she may feel her identity and ties to her family history are being stripped away from her.  A more extreme example of this happened to African Americans and Native Americans, and it was a horrendous part of our country’s past.  The last thing we want to do is put anybody through that again.  There has to be a compromise that works for all of us.

The majority of the interviewees, as shown in the chart above, want the Confederate monuments in public places removed and put in a museum. George, a retired military veteran, and Tim from Mississippi included battlefields as well. On the subject of battlefields, George said, “They contribute to the historical aspect/significance of them.”

Tina from New York views these figures etched in the stone of monuments as being put on a pedestal in the literal sense. She believes the statues should be moved to a museum “where the whole story can be presented.” She continued explaining her reasons for the removal of the monuments by saying, “I don’t really think people understand how people of color feel about this. It isn’t just a statue, it’s again just representing everything that never seems to be important enough to fix. I just want people of color to feel like they matter as much as I feel I do.”

Arizona resident, Lee, also spoke on the feelings of people of color saying, “How would you like to see statues of someone who murdered your ancestors in the town park?” She went on to say, “It impacts us in every way, but most of us don’t realize it because we are unaware of the daily lives of others outside our own small circles. But for black people, race underlies every single thing in life, pretty much without exception. Every encounter, every situation outside their safety zone (homes, churches, etc.) is a reminder of their history in one way or another. Sounds extreme? I think most black people would agree with me, and I’ve talked to so many who feel exactly this way.”

Conversely, Gabriel, a person of color who lives in Georgia, shared his perspective saying, “I do not believe all Confederate monuments should be removed, but I do believe others should be added in to give a more full scope of history. I also believe some of the monuments placed up are not really reflective of the history in the Confederacy since others (like Newton Knight or the many who were lynched for rebelling) are often left out of the picture – and this leaves the concept of “The Lost Cause” of the South strong where others do not see how multifaceted the South was.” He adds that there are many people who “see how the North and South were both symbols of white supremacy/corruption and others within it were left behind on both sides.”

newton knight pic for blog

When asked what the removal of the monuments will achieve and do for racial relations, Concetta said, “Many races are calling for the removal. If statues are removed, it’s not going to dissolve hate groups. If a person is inclined to hate an entire race of people, removal of a statue isn’t going to change that.”

Tim agreed, simply replying, “Nothing, none.”

Nicholas agreed with Concetta and Tim, saying, “What good will removing the monuments do? It’s about what’s in a person’s heart.” Candice echoed this.

Jennifer would like to replace the monuments with “USA veterans first and foremost. They gave their lives to preserve our nation.”

Jill could see the long-term effects, saying, “It will take decades, maybe even a generation or two, but without tangible symbols glorifying the leaders of a racist and treasonous rebellion, there will be less and less to legitimize white supremacists and a clearer path to better race relations.”

Julian said she hoped the moving of the monuments out of public places would unite us.

Both Gabriel and Jill suggested erecting other monuments that were more accurate and showed the unknown good people living during the Civil War.

harriet tubman statue

Finally, in asking what could be done to bridge the racial divisions in our country, many spoke of the importance of education and loving everyone. On this, Joni replied, “If there was more love, understanding, and compassion, we would indeed be the United States we could be proud of. Sadly, we’re not. We’re more a work in progress when so many just care about themselves and ‘their own.’ We need our leaders to show love, understanding, and compassion, too. Egos don’t allow that, unfortunately…”

Tony, Gabriel, Amy and others spoke of the importance of getting to know people of other races and backgrounds and learning from them. They see that as a way to overcome assumptions, stereotypes, and fears of people different from one’s own race.

In wrapping up my interviews, I’d like to share Jill and Tina’s ideas on forging better race relations, as they have similar takes on a portion of this subject matter.

In response to this question, Jill told me we need to get “white people to listen to issues of race without a knee-jerk, defensive reaction — for white people to understand that people of color experience life in this country differently than they do. And for black Americans to approach the discussion of race with the understanding that many white people live in ignorance about what minorities endure on a daily basis and have some patience while trying to educate them.”

Tina concurred in the responsibility of white people to understand better the perspectives of people of color saying, “I think we need to make a better effort as white people to make sure everyone else knows they matter. Men need to do this for women, too. You can’t really come to the table, so to speak, when you don’t feel like you matter equally.” She continued by likening race relations to a marriage, explaining, “I find it emotionally similar. Both people want to get along, both feel the other doesn’t understand them, both want to feel equal in the partnership, and like they matter.”

b&w handshake for blog

Having gained awareness and knowledge from my interviews and research on this subject, I think there are two crucial elements from my viewpoint: (1) the purpose and message of the monuments, and (2) how we see our country’s history.

Per The New York Times article above, as well as several other articles circulating the web about the subject of Confederate monuments, the majority of these monuments in question were erected decades after the Civil War and not for the purpose of admiring or remembering those lives lost or for whatever noble deeds for which the person became known. If we are going to be honest with ourselves, the great Founding Fathers of our country and those larger-than-life trailblazers that followed in their footsteps were all flawed human beings, as we all are. We can look back on our history and see the sordid, messy, and dark events that happened and know that when writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson meant equality for white men, not women or colored people, otherwise, there wouldn’t have been women’s suffrage or the Civil Right movements.  If we wanted to split that up even more, we could include the social classes.

Historians have often been accused of presentism in their judging and examining people from eras before their own. It is very hard for historians not to fall into this trap. Presentism is the judging and interpreting of an event or person(s) in history using the mindset/lens of their modern era, or in our case, the twenty-first century.   We can be rather harsh on those that came to this country fleeing England’s monarchal rule, religious persecutions, etc., to form a country centered on individual freedom and justice for all.   We can be skeptical and judge them sharply because we are centuries outside of that time period and have mindsets that have surpassed the mistakes and cruelties of their era. Therefore, we can clearly see the wrongdoings of many of our first leaders and those that followed. We are fully aware of the flaws of those early Americans, but we all have faults and learn along the way.  It was how Western culture and countries operated and lived. Certainly, we can and should condemn the heinous acts of slavery and genocide committed by our fellow early Americans and onward, but I believe we also have to look at those people at the time in which they lived that weren’t directly involved in or in total support of the killing of native people or the harsh and inhumane practices of slave trade and ownership of slaves. Right or wrong, the latter’s  behavior and actions were considered the “normal” way of life at that time.

Incidentally, one such person who matches the description of people in that era whose behavior was both good and bad I learned about was a Confederate general who I hadn’t heard of until yesterday. His name was William Mahone.  Why is that name not familiar? It turns out he was one leader erased from the South’s records and conscience. Mahone was indeed a slaveowner, supporter of secession (which Lee wasn’t), etc., but after the war, his actions proved he became a different man, or perhaps it was always there in him but was lost in the culture of his time and the heat of war. As Janet Dailey from the Huffington Post writes, “Mahone organized and led the most successful interracial political alliance in the post-emancipation.” As a senator of Virginia, he created the Readjuster’s Party, which was “a black-majority party” that “legitimated and promoted African American citizenship and political power by supporting black suffrage, office-holding, and jury service.” It was something “previously unseen in Virginia, and unmatched anywhere else in the nineteenth-century South” (Dailey). Eventually, this party lost power in 1883 because of a campaign run by Democrats that executed “violence, electoral fraud, and appeals to white solidarity” (Dailey). As a result, the progressive policies that Mahone and the Readjuster’s Party had managed to enact were abolished and Mahone was treated as a “demagogic race traitor” (Dailey). It seems those souls (however many) in the South that were trying to do good things after the war were marginalized or simply stricken from history’s known record. Would the course in the South and the whole nation’s history have been altered if these people and their achievements for the positive had been able to flourish? I think it is important to share these stories for our own knowledge and awareness.

w mahone conf general for blog

Although I lack the feeling of complete admiration for our Founding Fathers, I recognize the good deeds that they and others that followed them have done. Concetta pointed this out, saying, “Washington owned slaves, and their quarters are prominently displayed at Mt. Vernon.  He’s the father of the country.”  Thus, just as I can recognize Washington’s noble deeds, I recognize Generals Grant and Lee’s honorable actions toward their soldiers in the Civil War and Lee’s efforts towards reconciliation and positive progress after the war.  Of course, it’s good and of vital importance that the North won the war. It’s a given this win chartered Americans onto the correct path towards better treatment of our fellow human beings. We recognize the history’s periods of darkness and wish to move on in a positive direction to more light. I think America has done that slowly through several growing pains and continues to.

eagle and flag for blog

Therefore, I believe there can be resolution and progress on how to deal with these monuments/statues. I think they should be removed from the public squares, city government buildings et al., and put in Civil War museums, which should include a wing on African American early history of enduring and suffering through slavery.  I believe monuments should also be at battlefields for the sole purpose of identifying visually the leaders and on what side they fought. Ironically, it was Robert E. Lee who advised against erecting monuments of him or anyone else from the Confederacy. He believed in not keeping open “the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered” (Desjardins). It appears Lee had good foresight. If this advice had been heeded and others that were making positive changes had been allowed to proceed fully and freely, perhaps our progression away from resentment and “open sores” would have led to more encompassing healing in America.

Works Cited

Dailey, Janet. “The Confederate General Who Was Erased.” Huffington Post, 21 August 2017.

“Daughter of Civil War soldier takes on the fight to save Confederate monuments.”  Women in the World.  The New York Times, 10 July 2017.

Desjardins, Lisa. “Robert E. Lee opposed Confederate monuments.” PBS Newshour, 15 August 2017.

Hall, Peter, Patrick Sheehan and Michelle Merlin.  “Historians see options for Confederate statues.”  The Morning Call, 15 August 2017.

Shapiro, Gary. “The Meaning of Our ‘Monuments’.” The New York Times, 15 May 2017.

All interviews were conducted by PM or email August 19-22, 2017.

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