Why I Decided to Remove 4 Confederate MonumentsHistorians/History
tags: Confederate Monuments
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Jeffrey P. Kimball is emeritus professor of history, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. His latest book, with William Burr, is Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War (2015).
On May 19, 2017, Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans, delivered a 23-minute speech that in my view ranks as one of the great speeches in US history. Admittedly, I do not know the recipe for great historic speeches, but if there is one, it must include not only particular syntactic elements but also eloquence, clarity, sincerity, courage, inspiration, passion, authenticity, timeliness, hopefulness, compassion, and enduring truth-telling. Landrieu spoke as the city was taking down the Robert E. Lee monument to the Confederate rebellion and a symbol of Jim Crow and the myth of the righteous War of Southern Independence – the last of four prominent white-supremacy monuments. What impresses me most is not only Landrieu’s eloquence – expressed in his classic New Orleans “yat” accent – but his passionate delivery, which communicates the essential qualities of a great and meaningful speech. His message, moreover, was deeply historical, linking New Orleans’ tragic past to slavery, the treasonous act of Southern secession, and the enduring cults of the Lost Cause, white supremacy, and states-rights. At the same time, Landrieu celebrated the city’s rich ethnic history and its place in the American nation.
New Orleans has changed much since my wife, Linda, and I emigrated to the North in August 1963. We left the city we loved and still love to escape Southern parochialism and racism and also to pursue education and employment. But we have returned once or twice a year during the past 54 years to visit family, friends, and old haunts – as do our two children, one born in Canada and another in Ohio, one living and working in Washington DC and the other in Richmond. Racism remains in New Orleans (and in the North) but has evolved in a somewhat positive trajectory. Landrieu’s speech and the removal of Confederate monuments do not resolve the distressing cultural and economic issues associated with racism but are inspiring steps forward – and perhaps an encouragement and challenge to other cities, including Washington DC and Richmond, to remove their Confederate monuments and approach the future with a sober and accurate memory of the past.
As historians know, most early Confederate monuments mourned the dead, did not lie about why the Rebellion took place, and were located in cemeteries. After about 1890, when the Nadir of race relations set in, most new Confederate monuments were triumphant, claimed the Rebellion took place for states' rights or that God will vindicate "us," and were placed in positions of power and influence, such as in front of county courthouses.
Of course, you put up monuments after you win. Doubters might come to DC and see the Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall. We lost that war, of course, and that monument goes down -- a gash in the earth.
In 1890, Neo-Confederates won the Civil War. Yes, it ended in 1865, but they won it in 1890, in several ways. First, "the Mississippi Plan," the new state constitution of 1890, removed African Americans from citizenship. The U.S. did not object, tho it flew in the face of the 14th and 15th amendments. Every other Southern state and even Oklahoma followed suit by 1907.
Second, they won the war on the ground, with the second type of monument, noted above. Consider Kentucky, for example. It never seceded. Abraham Lincoln probably said, "I would like to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky," and that's one reason why he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation exactly as he did, so as not to affect Kentucky. Kentucky did send 35,000 troops to the C.S.A., but it send 90,000 to the U.S.A. Today, according to the late Thomas D. Clark, dean of Kentucky historians, it has 74 Civil War monuments, of which 2 are for the U.S. and 72 for the Confederacy. Most went up during the Nadir, 1890-1940. So Kentucky went Confederate after 1890. Monuments make a difference and stand as both cause and effect.
Third, they even renamed the war, calling it "the War Between the States," a phrase not used during the war itself.
For at least the past four years some of us have been working to remove Confederate monuments that stand in prominent public spaces and symbolize reverence for the "Lost Cause." Inadvertently, Dylann Roof aided this work by showing how our general regard for the Confederacy helped incubate murderous extremism on behalf of white supremacy. But many people still have not thought through the issues thoroughly and imagine that removing these symbols of white supremacy and reverence for the Confederate cause amounts to "whitewashing" history. Mayor Landrieu's speech, explaining his actions, show what is wrong with these objections to the de-Confederatization of the U.S. Many of his points are simply not answerable.
No, we need not remove every statue of George Washington or rename every school named for Thomas Jefferson, even though both owned slaves. They were not honored on the landscape because they owned slaves. Jefferson Davis, R. E. Lee, etc., on the other hand, were honored precisely because they led a rebellion on behalf of white supremacy as an ideology and slavery as a practice of it.
I hope a historical marker goes up every time a monument comes down, explaining what had been here, when it went up, what it tells about the Nadir, when it came down, and what its removal signifies. But even without such markers, as Landrieu explains so well, the monuments need to come down.
David Blight is the author of a forthcoming new biography of Frederick Douglass in 2018 from Simon and Schuster, and Professor of History at Yale University. Source: The Atlantic.
It remains to be seen how neo-Confederates will take their latest defeats. They have a fledgling, unsteady, ahistorical victory narrative to follow now in the presidency and the White House. But Landrieu, with Dylann Roof and a host of many other major players, progressive and regressive in their aims, may have taken America into a truly new era of Civil War remembrance. Americans may never find e pluribus unum in their political lives. But we can surely keep striving to write, teach and know about our pluribus. American politics is an impossible distance from ever knowing how to be “out of one, many,” but the history keeps changing on us, keeps becoming many, forcing us to, as the mayor suggested: “By God, just think.”. Monuments, those removed after more than a century of struggle, or those erected in a new era with new histories, may never accomplish as Mayor Landrieu hopes, “making straight what has been crooked and making right what has been wrong.” But if this process makes Americans learn and think about our history more knowingly and reflectively, if painfully, it is all for the good.
Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Source: Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
Since it will undoubtedly become a major document in the ongoing post-Charleston public reevaluation of the Civil War’s place in American politics, I urge everyone to read New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu’s moving speech on the removal of four Confederate monuments from his city. At this low moment in American politics, the speech is a refreshing reminder that (some) public figures can be thoughtful, eloquent, and humane. “I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history,” Landrieu says at one point, requesting genuine engagement from his audience—an all-too-rare example of a politician presenting the public with an argument that might actually challenge them, rather than appease them with a catalogue of platitudes culled from the notes of yet another focus group.
So well-done is the speech, in fact, that I almost hesitate to single any part out for criticism. But in the spirit of the democratic engagement in which it was offered—and in keeping with what I take to be one of its key arguments—I want to call attention to a rhetorical gesture that Landrieu regrettably leans on. It’s one you’ve heard before. “And I knew that taking down the monuments was going to be tough, but you elected me to do the right thing, not the easy thing, and this is what that looks like…This is not about politics.”
“This is not about politics” is a phrase that should always set off alarm bells, especially when it comes from a politician. Interestingly, the word “politics” does not make another appearance in the speech. But what else could a political figure making a speech about racist public memorials be talking about? Landrieu’s suggestion might be that the issue is somehow beyond politics—that a democratic argument over the statues would be inappropriate because they are so obviously unfit for public display. But if he truly thinks that, then the persuasive effort offered by his own speech is very strange indeed. Perhaps what he really intended was to say that the issue should be beyond politics, by which he means beyond disagreement: No American citizen should approve of a pro-Confederate public memorial. That is a world worth striving for, but as Landrieu knows, it is not an accurate description of the world we live in. The world we live in is home to many intellectual and political descendants of the Confederacy, and pretending that they somehow exist outside politics, or that they are not enabled by so-called “respectable” mainstream figures, is confusing and misleading.
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