On Monday, as much of the nation was grappling with the aftermath of the violent demonstrations at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a group of protestors in Durham, North Carolina decided to take action. A few among the crowd at an impromptu rally removed a 15-foot-tall granite-and-bronze Confederate monument that stood in front of the Durham County Courthouse. Erected in 1924, the statue featured an inscription reading “In Memory of ‘The Boys Who Wore the Grey.’” The demonstrators slung a rope around the figure, toppled it, and kicked it while playing a guitar over it. Others began posing for pictures besides the fallen monument.
This spontaneous demonstration may be a harbinger of things to come. Blain Roberts, a professor of history at California State University, Fresno, and Ethan J. Kytle, a professor and colleague of Roberts, co-authored a piece on Confederate monuments for The Atlantic and are working on a book about the memory of slavery. Both scholars agree an important shift has taken place.
Roberts and Kytle see the events of the past weekend changing the tenor and debate around Confederate monuments, much like Dylan Roof’s horrific church shooting in Charleston in 2015 spurred the Confederate flag removal in South Carolina. Kytle says white nationalists have now “attached themselves like albatrosses” to the Confederate monument issue.
“A lot of people on the political right have been talking about heritage, and have been very evasive about the monuments and what they represent,” adds Roberts. “The Charlottesville protesters revealed what we know to be true about these monuments: They are monuments to white supremacy, and the threat that we’ll tear them down is a threat to their ideology and movement.”
The white nationalist march around the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park—which the city council voted to remove earlier this year, a course of action opponents have temporarily halted with a lawsuit in state court—has accelerated the monument debate. But perhaps not in the way the statue-supporting protestors wanted. It has reinvigorated the issue and “given it new life,” says Roberts, outlining precisely why their longstanding argument about Confederate “legacy” is so flawed.
In April 2016 more than 1,500 public symbols of the Confederacy could be found across the U.S.—according to a Southern Poverty Law Center report—including 700 monuments. In addition to outright removal, people have proposed a spectrum of solutions for contextualizing the monuments to understand, as Kytle says, “why white supremacy was celebrated for so long.” After this weekend, those middle-ground solutions may quickly lose favor.
“The monuments are purposely evasive,” he says. “They are a shelter for celebrating the ‘Lost Cause,’ which was purposely romanticized. They pushed aside issues of slavery, and were erected at a time when Southern whites were passing laws that reinforced white supremacy.”
Compare these snapshots of Confederate memorials in the South from 1900, 1920, 1940 and 1960. pic.twitter.com/RalrI733uR— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) August 15, 2017
The National Trust for Historic Preservation agrees. In June, it released a statement that said, in part, “Decades after the war, advocates of the Lost Cause erected these monuments all over the country to vindicate the Confederacy at the bar of history, erase the central issues of slavery and emancipation from our understanding of the war, and reaffirm a system of state-sanctioned white supremacy.”
Baltimore’s city council passed a unanimous resolution on Monday to immediately remove Confederate monuments, and then in the early hours of Wednesday morning, did just that, with a team of cops and a large crane moving from park to park and pedestal to pedestal. The mayor of Lexington, Kentucky, Jim Gray, said the events of the past weekend hastened existing plans to remove a pair of Civil War memorials. The president of the Jacksonville, Florida, city council, Anna Lopez-Brosche, asked the city to take an inventory of statues, since she’d like to eventually move them.
They rode in on the Lost Cause. They rode out on a flatbed truck. pic.twitter.com/CfRlluk5s0— Alec MacGillis (@AlecMacGillis) August 16, 2017
Now that New Orleans has removed its monuments with a high-profile speech by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Roberts and Kytle predict more activity in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy—especially along Monument Avenue, which contains a half-dozen prominent Confederate statues.
Marchers protested there Sunday evening, demanding the statues be removed, and plans for a pro-monument rally in September were just canceled. Recently-appointed Richmond mayor Levar Stoney had advocated to keep the statues, and reiterated his position this week, since “removal would never wash away that stain.”
Expect even more protests with students returning to college campuses to begin the school year, Roberts says, particularly at places like University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where students have long protested a statue of a Confederate soldier referred to as "Silent Sam.”
A famous military leader once wrote that it was better not to celebrate the Confederacy after the conclusion of the Civil War, noting: “I think it wiser …not to keep 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.”
That leader would be Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who felt the south needed to move on after the conflict.
“He was worried that by keeping these symbols alive, it would keep the divisions alive,” Lee biographer Jonathan Horn told PBS.