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A rally at the South Carolina Statehouse for the removal of the Confederate flag, with the banner waving in the background. (photo by maracgay/Instagram)

Yesterday afternoon, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol. The flag that, perhaps more than any other symbol today, represents the system of black slavery and white supremacy upon which this country was built — and which, interestingly, was never the official flag of the Confederacy — has flown over the grounds of the South Carolina State House in Columbia since 1962. It was waving in the wind long before white 21-year-old Dylann Roof allegedly murdered nine black people at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17; it was waving at full mast the day after, when the other flags on the grounds were lowered to half; and it waves still.

Haley’s call for the removal of the flag is certainly a step in the right direction, but as Jelani Cobb pointed out, writing for The New Yorker:

The State House flag itself is, on the whole, less than impressive. Tethered to a thirty-foot pole protected by an iron enclosure, the red-and-blue swath of fabric is actually fairly easy to miss. Less easily overlooked, however, is the massive memorial to Benjamin Tillman, the former governor and avowed Negrophobe who spoke proudly of having led lynching parties in his youth. When I spoke to [Tom] Hall, the attorney and filmmaker, after the rally, he pointed out something that few critics of the flag have observed. “It’s not just the flag. The entire Capitol grounds are basically a tribute to white supremacy.” Sixty feet beyond the monument to Tillman is a memorial for J. Marion Sims, the pioneering gynecologist who perfected his craft by performing experimental surgeries on enslaved black women. “The only black person whose name appears anywhere on these grounds is Essie Mae Thurmond — the illegitimate black daughter of Senator Strom Thurmond,” Hall said. The flag is not the only symbol valorizing the racially horrific past, or even the most visible; it is simply the most obvious.

In other words — and as countless others have pointed out by now — the Columbia flag is a small piece of an enormous iceberg: the legacy of the Confederacy memorialized and on full display throughout the American South.

The Mississippi state flag incorporates the image of the Confederate flag in the top left corner. (image via Wikipedia)

It’s hard to know where to even begin. With other Confederate flags? Well, Mississippi’s state flag incorporates it. The design of Georgia’s state flag is based on the first official flag of the Confederacy. Other state banners are connected to the Confederacy in more or less obvious ways. The Confederate flag is featured on custom license plates, and needless to say, plenty of people hang or fly it on private property, such as “a huge Confederate flag planted on a 90-foot pole along I-95 north of Fredericksburg” in Virginia. Frighteningly, its popularity isn’t even limited to the United States.

The towering Robert E. Lee Monument in New Orleans (photo by Ken Lund/Flickr) (click to enlarge)

Then there are the monuments — hundreds of them. Wikipedia’s “list of monuments and memorials of the Confederate States of America” includes more than 50 such statues in Arkansas alone (by far the state with the most). And that list is far from complete, because Louisiana isn’t on it — a state whose largest city, New Orleans, has a traffic circle devoted to Robert E. Lee. Towering over the circle is a 12-foot statue of the Confederate general atop a 60-foot column (the whole thing included on the National Register of Historic Places). The cruel irony of this is presumably not lost on the city’s majority black population, nor on discerning outsiders: for his work “Silent parade… or the Soul Rebels Band Vs. Robert E. Lee,” artist William Cordova enlisted members of the Soul Rebels brass band to stand atop a nearby building and blast their music at the general. Lee’s monolith is just one of “many monuments to the Confederacy” strewn throughout a city that lacks a single memorial for soldiers who fought on the side of the Union, according to Jarvis DeBerry writing on NOLA.com.

In the week since Roof committed his act of racial terror, activists have begun to take notice of these monuments and intervene. In BaltimoreCharleston, Austin, and no doubt elsewhere, protesters have been painting the phrase “Black Lives Matter” on the base of statues devoted to Confederate fighters. In St. Louis, activists covered a 32-foot-tall Confederate Memorial in “Black Lives Matter” signs and banners, reactivating discussion of a monument that’s been the subject of controversy for over a century.

St. Louis Magazine story quotes both an activist and a historic preservationist as saying they have mixed feelings about the potential removal of the memorial; they cite the positive way in which it could be used to educate and spark discussion. And indeed, if further proof were needed to demonstrate how deeply entrenched racism and white supremacy are in this country, the littering of monuments to the Confederacy and Confederate soldiers and generals throughout the US is certainly instructive. Then again, so is the premeditated murder of nine black people by someone who said he wanted to “start a race war.”

Memorials are how we recount and publicly value our history (although how we tell that history is often distorted by political correctness and who can afford to build them). Dismantling all of these Confederate monuments and simply pretending nothing ever happened — continues to happen — would serve no one. But could we stand to remove some, replacing them instead with monuments to slave rebellions, to black leaders, perhaps an official Tomb of the Unknown Slave? In doing so, could we try in some small way to rebalance the story of this country? Emphatically, yes.

Of course, it’s important not to overstate the power of such symbols — not to confuse the removal of a flag with real policy changes that could positively affect the lives of African Americans. Taking down the flag in Columbia “offers a kind of equality — an equality of emptiness — to black South Carolinians,” Cobb writes. Still, allowing black Americans to drive their cars or ride the bus to work without having to pass a hovering, hallowed symbol of slavery on the way wouldn’t be a terrible place to start.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

29 replies on “What Should Be Done with the US’s Many Confederate Monuments?”

    1. Every one with an ounce of brains knows what that Confederate Flag represents..they can act dumb and talk about heritage and all that CRAP..but every body knows. Hell even the white supremacist NAZI’s in Europe has adopted it as their flag. White AmeriKKKa’s culture of hate has been commercialized and has gone global….. they are now exporting their cultural symbols and products of hate.

  1. Would white Amerikkka let German Americans fly The NAZI Swastika over the State House and name bridges and highways after Himmler and Goering? Yet every day the black man has to be reminded of white hatred and contempt for his black victims. The Rapist and murderer is allowed to build monuments to his evilness and depravity across the street from his victims to remind his victims who is boss!

    The Silence from America’s influential Jewish Community and the Catholic Vatican is deafening.Where is the Pope? and Conference of Catholic Bishops.. they have an opinion on every thing under the sun except …Anti-black racism. Where is AmeriKKKa’s white gay community and same sex marriage crowd? They get upset about pizza makers and flower shops but is silent on RACISM- Silence on the RepubliKKKan taking away black people’s right to vote. Where is white Hollywood?

    Where are the Conventions and meetings boycott of States that fly this racist symbol of white evil and debauchery ?

    I guess its more important for white homosexual and lesbians to get a slice of pizza at the vendor of their choice than it is for black people to have the right to vote and not be confronted with white supremacy symbols on public property.

    White arts community of AmeriKKKa!!!.. Your silence is deafening!!!…

    1. You should read the works of Martin Luther King Jr if you want to understand civil rights. Better that than type what you just did, transparently against real civility.

      1. I guess the unvarnished truth hurts.. MLK talked about the Silence of Consent..” In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

        1. The “unvarnished truth” is America elected a black president and your vote for Obama counted no more than any white person’s did, much less mine. That is not “silence,” so STFU with your blustering nonsense.

          1. LOL.. I see you are master of deflection.. The unvarnished TRUTH is the election of President Obama only enaged the racists in AmeriKKKa. he only got about 30% of the white vote and only about 20%of the white male vote. His election only exposed the racist underbelly of White AmeriKKKa further enraging them. I dont have to remind you of the insults and disrespect from every white dog and cat he has had to endure. How he has maintained his dignity and class in the face of “white racist blustering nonsense” I will never know.. so go EFF yo self!!

          2. Civility isn’t permitting a hate-filled bigot spew nonsense because you’re white and treat black racism with kid gloves. This deluded “messiah” deserves the respect to be treated like any other internet-trolling asshole, regardless of skin color . Editors here don’t hit delete on outrageously hateful comments when they come from black folks, so readers are left to adjudicate some sense impartiality in what hate speech is. I just put in words some common sense.

  2. The issue of the Confederate battle flag and Confederate monuments likely needs to be separated. Hate groups long ago co-opted the flag as a symbol of white supremacy and have used it for decades to taunt and demean Black citizens. As President Obama noted, it belongs in a museum. Southern Confederate monuments are also problematic but are best viewed as sad attempts by a defeated South to justify failed rebellion and a senseless war. They are ineffably tragic reminders of civic blindness, ideological ignorance and, yes, the politics of hatred. In the way that history references the recurrence of folly, some even have poetic relevance to the present as Alexandria, Virginia’s Confederate soldier, a traffic-choking circle on the city’s main drag, turns his back on Washington, a stance as many blacks as whites might endorse given the political dysfunctionalism so rampant today. Tearing them down outright might satisfy politically correct imperatives of the present but would rob the nation of those visual reminders of its own troubled history. I agree with Jillian Steinhauer: better to build monuments to Black American heroes and triumphs. These would doubtless provide nuance and texture to a part of the country that too often only sees in black and white.

    1. “South to justify failed rebellion and a senseless war”

      The notion of “rebellion” is a conceit of the North’s ad hoc vocuabulary that wished to justify colonialization of the southern states for its material resources (a practice done all over the world, then and today), pretending that at that time there was such a thing as a national government, even one that maintained sovereignty over individual states. This was never the case prior to colonizing efforts fueled by the economic threat of southern states conducting business with England instead of the northern factory mills insisting on monopoly, mills which, through merchants, sold clothing back to southerners who provided the raw resources to make.

      A sensless war? This is posed as if the South wasn’t invaded by the North, having a war brought to it, rather than the reverse, as even the history books written in Boston, where the “official story” of the war came to us by legal force, will telll you. Perhaps Boston will erect a monument for African American attorney Ted Landsmark who was attacked and bloodied by white teenagers on his way to Boston City Hall in 1977. The war of segregationist Boston was settled by the courts to desegregate Boston’s school bussing system from 1974-1988, which is 20 years after schools in Charleston, South Carolina desegregated and a 100 years after the Civil War.

      So be it that a lunatic shot black Christians and New York journalists appreciate it as some signifier of a southern racism they know only through the same stories they themselves author, citing their own works and their own publications as authoritative, a kind of by-fiat form of truth-telling that operates like a feedback loop.

      It’s a nice gesture to say history of the South is “complicated,” but less true to the facts when the egregious racism of the North, alive today, is whitewashed by everyone with a high enough horse to sit on.

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_busing_desegregation#/media/File:Soiling_of_Old_Glory.jpg

      1. ” pretending that at that time there was such a thing as a national government,”

        Uh, no, there absolutely was a national government.

        1. Not really, not in any efficacious or binding sense. It was at the time only rhetorical, hence my adding, “one that maintained sovereignty over individual states.”

          http://history-world.org/united_states_government.htm

          The interest in making a national government “real” was to protect the economic power of northern industrialization. The North’s “national goverment” was no more interested in stopping human rights abuses (in this case human slavery), than the national goverment today, or ever, has gone to war for human rights abuses. Wars are fought for self-interest, not the good of others. American nationalism is now passe, especially in the arts, because we all know this.

          1. Unique? It’s as unique as almost 15 years of political commentary that suggests George Bush didn’t actually invade Iraq to bring it freedom.

          2. You just said that wars are fought on the basis of self-interest and then you try to make the case that George Bush (the saint that he was) didn’t fight the Iraq war on the basis of self-interest? Oh, and by the way, plopping a website down in a post doesn’t make it any more authoritative than it might otherwise be.

      2. btw. I grew up in the south and currently live in Boston. Yes, there is still a good bit of racism around here. No, it is not anywhere near what it is in the south.

        1. I’m an expat too. I’ve lived in “the North” for 15 years and have no plans on leaving. We can exchange anecdotes if it were worth our time, but I see racism to be about the same, albeit in different forms. For example, the “racism” being fought against in Charleston right now is actually a symbolic one (hence this art publication’s ability to make the story art-related), not “real” one, not real in the way this lunatic with a gun represents anything other than what lunatics with guns can do.

          1. I’ve lived in Charleston for almost 28 years (I’m originally from New Jersey). There is nothing “symbolic” about the racism in Charleston.

          2. The debate is about to what the Confederate flag refers, and now what Confederate monuments mean. It’s a turf war in semiotics, not lynchings. Listening to rednecks drop the N-bomb around your town doesn’t give you a leg up here.

      3. I agree .. the North and South were both SKKKumbags.. meaning .You want to argue over who was the bigger “SKKKumbags” I guess. Its like Hitler and Stalin arguing who was more justified and culpable in a family /tribal war that lead to the death of 60 million people. However try as you Southerners try to deflect from your evil ways and legacy ..You cant escape the facts of the matter that the South like The Nazi’s of Germany had the MOST wicked and the most evil of the agendas. Yes the North had its own self serving interest to exploit the black man, but the South was the real Vampire in this movie..you actually wanted to drink the black man’s blood while exploiting him..that is your legacy- you can put lipstick on a pig but its still a pig …old chap!!.

  3. I think the activists have the right idea. Adding to, or modifying monuments would set a better precedent than tearing them down, like ISIS does with the history it doesn’t like.

    1. No one is suggesting there monuments to racism or white IGNORANCE be teared down ala ISIS…just remove it from public property. Maybe they can take their monuments and create a theme park called ” HonkeeLand” or ” ConLand”?? WhiteyLand?? or “RebeLand”?? ore ven better “KKKlanLand” a Disneyland of hate …. a cultural heritage destination where RedneKKKs and their friends can go and reminisce about the Grand Ole Days!! .. They can walk around -drink Beer and curse Niggaz all day!!!, they can target shoot darkies all day.. hell that sounds like great fun.. Hell sounds so exciting!! … I cant wait to turn white so I can go visit with ma son…. Billy “Bob” Brubaker!!

  4. The State of New York alone has about 200 memorials to Civil War soldiers, including the massive Soldiers’ and Sailors’ monument in Manhattan. Good for them. Each State, North and South, has monuments to their dead in that war. When we start tearing down statues, then we have become the Taliban.

    I personally really like the recently added memorial in Vicksburg Mississippi to African Americans in the Vicksburg campaign:

    http://www.nps.gov/vick/learn/historyculture/african-american-history.htm

  5. Confederate soldiers, sailors, and Marines who fought in the
    Civil war were made U.S. Veterans by an act of Congress in in 1957, U.S. Public
    Law 85-425, Sec 410, which was approved 23 May, 1958. This made all Confederate
    Veterans equal to U.S. Veterans.

    Before that, under U.S. Public Law 810, Approved by the 17th
    Congress on 26 Feb 1929 the War Department was directed to erect headstones and
    recognize Confederate grave sites as U.S. War dead grave sites. Just for the
    record the last Confederate veteran died in 1958. So, in essence, when you
    remove a Confederate statue, monument or headstone, you are in fact, removing a
    statue, monument or head stone of a U.S. VETERAN.” (a felony)

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