Since the death of George Floyd ignited demonstrations across the country, Americans have asked themselves whether recent events portend the end of systemic racism.
They wondered the same after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and the massacre of African American churchgoers by a white man, Dylan Roof, in Charleston, SC. But it was not to be, just as similar hopes were dashed after the civil rights movement and the Civil War left marks on our nation's history.
Now, the Civil War itself is being swept up in the aftermath of Floyd's death as Confederate monuments from Louisville, KY to Oxford, MS have been vandalized, forcibly pulled down or removed by officials over the past few weeks. Among them: A commemoration of Confederate dead in Jacksonville FL (taken down by order of the mayor, in part at the urging of members of the city’s NFL team, the Jaguars); a sculpture of General Robert E. Lee (toppled by students from his namesake high school in Montgomery, AL; and an equestrian monument of General Stonewall Jackson in Richmond, VA (covered in Black Lives Matter graffiti).
All of which raises a question: why are these statues still up, 150 years after Lee's surrender at Appomattox?
The answer is arguably rooted in President Abraham Lincoln's decision not to punish Southerners, with the exception of Confederate officials, for the war. Still, once slavery was abolished and African-Americans were granted voting rights, Southerners continued to violently resist change and it took Federal troops to defend the new order during the Reconstruction Era.
African-Americans won seats in city assemblies and state legislatures because in much of the Old South, blacks outnumbered whites. After he was assassinated, however, Lincoln was succeeded by his Vice President, Andrew Johnson, a Southerner who, while siding with the Unionist cause, wasn't as supportive of the African-American cause as his predecessor. Johnson pardoned former members of the Confederate government and turned a blind eye to acts of terror being committed by whites against blacks. Johnson eventually became the first president to be impeached.
Reconstruction effectively ended with the contested election of 1876, when Republican candidate and popular-vote loser Rutherford B. Hayes bargained with Southern Congressmen to help him win the presidency by awarding him the electoral college votes of three undecided states—Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. As part of the deal, Hayes withdrew the army from the South, leaving African-Americans to the mercy of their former owners. Blacks were promptly disenfranchised and kicked out of positions of power as Jim Crow laws, enforced by lynchings, were imposed.
This allowed the South to rewrite the war’s history: treason committed to uphold slavery was now considered “Lost Cause” (an ideology that holds the Confederacy cause during the war to be a just one). As a result, statues of Confederate generals and other worthies were erected in large numbers from the 1890s through the 1950s. These memorials recast traitors like Lee as romantic heroes. Even Northerners bought into the myth; in fact, many such memorials were erected outside of the old Confederacy (and not only to the likes of Lee, but also to racist figures of more recent vintage, such as former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, whose statue was also just removed).
As memories of the Civil War faded, so, too, did the original intent of these monuments, which were increasingly touted as talismans of Southern “heritage” that are even now being protected by laws making that claim in several states.
While the jury is still out on whether we are really at a watershed moment, the true story behind these symbols of white supremacy is getting harder and harder to ignore.
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