Most “Civil War” memorials have nothing to do with the Civil War

Photo by Shelby Knowles

The debate about Civil War monuments and memorials has reached Texas. On Tuesday, August 15, just days after the murder of a civil rights activist by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia, workers from the Texas Department of Public Transportation removed two tiny rebel flags in front of a Confederate marker in a suburb of Fort Worth. Though the action was part of a routine road-side cleanup, backlash from white Texans has been apoplectic, prompting Gov. Greg Abbott to vow to protect Texas Confederate signage and memorials. Nevertheless, in the early morning hours of August 21, the University of Texas at Austin removed several statutes of Confederates.

What many whites, North and South, fail to realize is that the markers, memorials and monuments in their towns often have little to do with the actual Civil War. Instead, they are public announcements of white supremacy and racial bigotry erected in the early- to mid-twentieth century, when the Civil Rights movement revived. Even a cursory glance at the erection dates shows that a significant number of markers, especially those far removed from Civil War battlefields, were dedicated decades later for contemporary reasons.

In short, there were two waves of Confederate memorializing.

The first came at the high tide of the Jim Crow era, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A new generation of white Southerners raised on “Southern belle” fictions and “Lost Cause” mythology were emboldened by the 1896 Supreme Court ruling Plessy v. Ferguson, which legalized racial segregation and discrimination, the release of The Birth of a Nation (1915), which celebrated the KKK as the heroes of the Civil War, and the aggressive racism of the Woodrow Wilson administration (1913-21), which segregated the federal government and employed racial propaganda. Moreover, white Southerners were alarmed by the creation of the NAACP in 1909, which aimed to challenge racial discrimination through the court system.

Inspired to act, white Southerners renewed the KKK and erected monuments to the Confederacy. These were indisputably acts of white supremacy and the culture of the moment, rather than any desire to honor the short-lived and long-dead Confederate States of America. A “Confederate” monument in Colfax, Louisiana, dedicated in 1921, for instance, was devoted to the three white men who died massacring hundreds of black Americans in 1873. “[To] the memory of the heroes,” it reads, “who fell in the Colfax Riot fighting for white supremacy, April 13, 1873.” The inscription had little to do with the Civil War and everything to do with the resurgent racism of the 1920s. Most of the markers and statues in Texas are likewise products of the early 20th century.

The second wave came in the 1950s-60s, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 and as black and white civil rights activists began organizing peaceful protests, marches, sit-ins and voter registration drives throughout the South. White reaction was swift and predicable: violence and terrorism. But in addition to church bombings, assaults and assassinations, white Southerners flew the Confederate battle flag and erected more Confederate memorials. The flags and memorials, often placed along main thoroughfares or in central plazas or parks, served as clear, unambiguous messages to would-be civil rights advocates: We will kill you. Simultaneously, these very same towns instituted “sundown” laws, preventing people of color from being in public after dark. Such draconian measures were enforced by all-white police forces and the KKK, two institutions that often shared members.

Whites chose Confederate symbols for their unmistakable meaning: black slavery, white supremacy, and disregard for federal law. By erecting these memorials, local whites indicated their devotion to racial hierarchy and their willingness to violate federal civil rights policies, especially school integration.

“The great truth,” according to Confederate Vice President and Georgia enslaver Alexander Stephens in what is known as the cornerstone speech, “[is] that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.”

Nearly the exact same sentiment was expressed in 1903 by Texas Gov. Samuel Lanham at the dedication of a small Confederate historical marker in Lakeside, north of Fort Worth: “Whomsoever, high or low, promotes or encourages social equality between the negro and the white man is an enemy of this government.” Lanham was not interested in Civil War specifics, but rather his own generation’s battle against racial equality. The values remained the same, but the context had changed.

The connection between Confederate monuments and opposition to black civil rights is deliberate and clear. By invoking the Confederacy, later generations of white Southerners declared war against the federal government and against civil rights legislation, just as Confederates declared war on the United States and “Black Republicans” by attacking Fort Sumter in April 1861. The markers and memorials embody the spirit of the Confederacy, but are products of twentieth century bigotry.