President Trump was back on Twitter today, writing that it’s “sad” to see so many Confederate statues and monuments removed from prominent public spaces and cast into the historical dustbin. “The beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed,” the president lamented.
His tweets — coming on the heels of his insistence that “many sides” were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville — are pouring kerosene on a controversy that’s centuries in the making. Trump’s incendiary comments on the bloody clashes in Charlottesville, and for that matter even his election, were possible only because the North’s victory in the Civil War was incomplete, and the achievements of the 1960s-era civil rights movement remain circumscribed.
Both the Civil War and the civil rights movement are justifiably seen as progressive breakthroughs. They were revolutions resulting in the end of slavery and, later, the abolition of Jim Crow across the United States. But the very existence of the Confederate statues that Trump is now defending, and the white-supremacist-fueled violence in Charlottesville last weekend, also underscore what wasn’t achieved in those earlier victories, and the and limits of these revolutions.
It is remarkable that scores of monuments and statues to the Confederacy, the losing side in the Civil War, were even erected in the first place. Consider that these symbols of a regime founded to defend slavery occupy hallowed public grounds — city parks, town squares, statehouses and courthouses.
It’s almost as if Italy or Japan had erected statues honoring wartime leaders Benito Mussolini or Hideki Tojo in the decades following those countries’ defeats in World War II. Typically, the losing side in a war doesn’t get to pay public tribute to its leaders, especially when the cause is as repugnant as the subjugation and enslavement of an entire race. But that is the situation that the United States finds itself in today.
The Confederate statues defended by Trump were not innocent manifestations of civic pride, but intentional assertions of white supremacy. As historians and journalists have amply documented, the first wave of statues and monuments were erected decades after North had won the Civil War. As the South in the 1890s and 1900s began to codify segregationist Jim Crow laws and deployed mob and state-sanctioned violence to keep African-Americans subjugated, states erected dozens of public tributes to the cause of the Confederacy. Confederate statues and monuments served as cultural expressions of white supremacy, painful reminders that the nation’s racial hierarchy survived the emancipation of African-Americans from slavery.
A second wave of monument construction coincided with massive white resistance to the nonviolent civil rights movement. From 1955 to 1965, Southern (and some non-Southern) states put up dozens of Confederate-glorifying monuments. In reality, then, the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965) and affirmative action, among other policies aimed at fostering racial equality, never adequately addressed the stubborn persistence of racism in the society and the subtle appeals to white supremacy in the political culture, long after the civil rights revolution had run its course.
The limited nature of these victories laid the groundwork for the white supremacist controversies roiling Trump’s America. It was just two years ago, in the wake of the horrific murder of nine African-Americans by a white supremacist neo-Confederate sympathizer in a church in Charleston, that then-Gov. Nikki Haley agreed to take down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. It’s no small irony that Haley is now Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Haley’s actions drew bipartisan praise, and a handful of cities and towns began to take down their Confederate statues and monuments, most prominently in New Orleans under the aegis of Mayor Mitch Landrieu earlier this year. But other forces were at work, some of them progressive, others deeply reactionary, that brought us to Trump’s full-throated defense of Confederate statues. In recent years, videos of police shootings of unarmed African-Americans displayed on social media sparked a national conversation about the persistence of structural racism and racial inequality in America’s cities and the criminal justice system. The rise of Black Lives Matter helped focus attention on racial injustice, and raised fresh questions about why in the 21st century so many prominent public spaces still paid tribute to the Confederacy. The racially charged backlash to Barack Obama’s 2008 election as the nation’s first African-American president, combined with the shocking 2016 election of Donald Trump, the leader of the “birther” movement questioning Obama’s birthplace, gave cheer to white supremacists and emboldened Americans opposed to civil rights.
Thus, it becomes painfully clear that this week’s crisis, and Trump’s tweets, are part of a long-simmering, decades-in-the-making development. Trump’s presidency has helped light some of the torches that white supremacists raised aloft in Charlottesville last weekend. The history of Confederate monuments and statues reminds us that historical progress, especially on issues of race and social justice, is far from assured. Racial progress has almost inevitably been confronted with racist reaction, forces as old as a Constitution that in 1787 defined African-Americans as 3/5 of a person and sanctioned the terror of slavery in much of the United States.
Matthew Dallek, associate professor at George Washington’s Graduate School of Political Management, is author of Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security
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