Statues and flags. We are in the midst of a historic movement to recast the symbols and spaces that have proclaimed what Southerners value, and who Southerners are, for over a century. This movement has challenged state and local governments, great universities and local school boards.
Like the Civil War, it began in response to shots fired in Charleston. Amazingly, the many shells fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861 killed no one. In deadly contrast, 21-year-old Dylan Roof ended the lives of nine people at Emanuel A.M.E. Church on June 17, 2015. The warped, young Roof had once posed with the Confederate flag. Like an earlier generation of segregationists, he believed that he upheld its values.
In the wake of the murders at Emanuel, revulsion led to recognition that that flag was not simply an innocuous symbol of regional pride and heritage. Whatever else it was, it was also the battle flag of a government that fully embraced slaveholding. To almost all black Southerners, the flag’s message was hostile, threatening and lethal.
To be sure, the historical responsibility for slavery must be shared by the North and South, and by profiteers on three continents. Yet, during the Civil War, the Confederate flag represented the best hope for the survival and expansion of the oppressive institution. That is why enslaved people fled from that flag seeking freedom, even before the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued.
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So, 150 years after the Civil War was supposed to have ended, the governor and the legislature of South Carolina decided that the time had come to stop flying the Confederate flag on the grounds of their capitol. The Confederate cultural hegemony had been broken, and a season of change and contention had begun.
It was deeply disturbing to see images of angry, torch-bearing, neo-Nazis spewing vile, anti-Semitic slogans, while demonstrating in support of Charlottesville’s monument honoring General Robert E. Lee. From their point of view, there was a clear connection between an effort to establish a master race, and an effort to maintain a race of masters.
In Charlottesville, it was the death of Heather Heyer that shocked us into thinking and caring. Her death launched the second wave of the movement that had begun after Charleston. Dylann Roof had said he wanted to start a race war. Instead, he set in motion a remarkably diverse and inclusive movement against symbols of racism.
It was not until decades after the Civil War that a rigid and pervasive racial caste system was inscribed into law throughout the South. It was not until those years that monuments to the Confederate war effort began to appear in public squares and in front of court houses, even in states like Kentucky and Maryland that had never been parts of the Confederacy. Those statues were tributes to the “lost cause,” but they were also sentinels of supremacy.
Today, it certainly would be wrong to assume that anyone who wants to hold on to the history of their Confederate forebears must be a vicious racist, longing for the return of slavery. Erasing history is a bad idea. That is why it continues to be imperative to restore, preserve and respect actual historic sites. Battlefields, buildings, museums, historical markers and historical societies help us to learn, remember, understand and reflect.
Statues in prominent public spaces communicate with us in a different way and serve a different purpose. They affirm the Confederate cause. Over the years, they have succeeded in allowing many people to believe that the Civil War was primarily about Southern white honor and chivalry, and that it had almost nothing at all to do with slavery.
This movement must be kept in perspective. It can go too far, and it does not directly address our most pressing racial, social and economic issues. In the long run, our times will be remembered more for what we create, than for what we remove. Posterity requires that we leave a legacy of inspirational public art, and inclusive public spaces, that reflect the best values and highest aspirations of the 21st century South.
Achieving excellence will take time, but someday the South will honor and respect the ending of slavery, as much as it has honored the men who were part of the effort to prevent that from happening.
Reginald F. Hildebrand is an adjunct instructor of history at Durham Technical Community College.