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Charting the Proliferation of Confederate Symbols Alongside Social Movements

A chart by the Southern Poverty Law Center cataloguing Confederate symbols around the country recently resurfaced.

150 Years of Iconography, courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center. Sourced from their story, Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy (click to enlarge)

After 21-year-old terrorist Dylann Roof took the lives of nine black men and women at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, the media flooded us with images of the killer, leering and wielding a Confederate flag. The photographs were accompanied by Roof’s bold, supposedly self-processed claim: he’d wanted to “start a race war.”

Suddenly, there was a nationwide movement to reassess and erase the flag from public spaces. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) began to catalog Confederate symbols around the country, stating: “There was no comprehensive database of such symbols…In an effort to assist the efforts of local communities to re-examine these symbols, the SPLC launched a catalog to study them.”

The final tally, which “excluded nearly 2,600 markers, battlefields, museums, cemeteries, and other…symbols,” identified 1,503 “Confederate place names and other symbols in public spaces, both in the South and across the nation,” including 718 monuments and statues, and 109 public schools named for Confederate icons.

In addition to the names and placements of these symbols, the SPLC also noted a peculiar social history attached to them, which they charted in an infographic in April 2016 that has recently resurfaced. There were two major periods during which the dedication of Confederate monuments and other symbols spiked: the first two decades of the 20th century and, later, the Civil Rights movement. As they explain:

[T]wo distinct periods saw a significant rise in the dedication of monuments and other symbols. The first began around 1900, amid the period in which states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise the newly freed African Americans and re-segregate society. This spike lasted well into the 1920s, a period that saw a dramatic resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been born in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

The second spike began in the early 1950s and lasted through the 1960s, as the civil rights movement led to a backlash among segregationists. These two periods also coincided with the 50th and 100th anniversaries of the Civil War.

Take a look at the infographic. Note the massive cluster of dedications of monuments around the time the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was being formed, and the dedications’ continued persistence during the KKK’s resurgence. Check out the sudden rise in the dedication of schools, named in honor of Confederate soldiers, almost immediately following Brown v. Board of Education. Note that there were less dedications of Confederate symbols during race riots, even a significant dip during the Detroit uprising of 1943.

You can trace a clear spike in the dedication of Confederate monuments whenever black Americans organized in a concrete way; when they were made visibly vulnerable — such as in the instance of uprisings — the commitment to Confederate symbolism tapered off.

According to this data, it’s clear that once black Americans sought their own agency or publicly defended their rights, white supremacists and Confederate apologists became eager to crowd around these monuments in tender affection and homage, to espouse this history. The monuments had a purpose, newly reinstated again and again, to revive and cherish white history each time minorities, especially black people, made themselves visible. The common refrain in support of the Confederate flag (“heritage, not hate”) quickly dies on its own sword. There’s no pride, except for the kind rooted in a fear of white erasure.

After mining the data, it’s clear white panic is real. Amidst their Nazi-style chants of “blood and soil,” and “Jews will not replace us,” 100 racist, tiki-wielding goyim dressed as indignant garden gnomes are enough to make you forget the initial alibi for last weekend’s Unite the Right rally — the potential removal of the Robert E. Lee monument from Emancipation Park — and focus on its actual intention. That, of course, was a convocation for racist ideology, which ultimately resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, numerous injuries, and widespread horror.

There’s now an effort to remove more monuments, either by official decision or sheer will. Early this morning in Baltimore, Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered overnight removals of four Confederate monuments. Two days ago, in Durham, North Carolina, a group of protestors toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier themselves. A Confederate statue in Gainesville, Florida, nicknamed “Old Joe,” was removed Monday, and in Kentucky, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray announced his decision to ask City Council to relocate two Confederate monuments. In a recent interview with PBS, author, historian, and University of Richmond professor Edward Ayers reminds us “had [the Confederacy] won, you would’ve had an independent nation overseeing the largest and most powerful system of slavery in the modern world…it’s harder and harder for the older story — the Confederacy as merely a defense of states’ rights against the federal government — to stand.

In a letter to his wife, Mary Anne Lee, Robert E. Lee — often purported to have been neutral on the subject of slavery — wrote, “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country…I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race…The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.” There’s no way around it: the Confederacy, at its core, was determined to preserve slavery. The Mississippi Declaration of causes for secession stated, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, in an example of solipsistic logic, said in his 1861 Cornerstone Speech, “They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical…but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails.”

Every photograph of Roof and his flag are disturbing. But one is painterly in composition, props framed just so, the Confederate symbol placed almost casually — just another ugly layer in an image mostly dotted with landscape elements. In a moment of visual irony, which becomes trite as soon as you realize Roof was probably aware of it, our subject is buttressed by pots of vulnerable small marigolds on either side of him. He sits with a defiant insouciance, Confederate flag in one hand, gun in the other; his weapon is pointed at the grass, unassuming flora in the foreground, as if he intends to shoot the flowers themselves. Roof’s reading of the flag is the best argument for its removal, and the removal of any Confederate monument — he’s never felt hate and heritage were mutually exclusive.

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