Last week, Southern Poverty Law Center released an update to its eye-opening 2016 report, Whose Heritage?, which sought to locate and quantify the number of Confederate symbols being presented in monuments within the public sphere. The original report was motivated by the 2015 terrorist attack by a gun-wielding white supremacist on the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which killed nine parishioners and devastated the surrounding community. Once the shooter was identified, self-promotional imagery surfaced that featured him brandishing a handgun and a Confederate flag.
“In the aftermath of the tragedy, there was this kind of grassroots national push to get some of these monuments and symbols that glorify the Confederacy off of the public square,” Senior Research Analyst Keegan Hanks with the SPLC’s Intelligence Project department, who has worked on the study since its inception, said in a phone interview with Hyperallergic. “We started to poke around out of curiosity, to see how many of these monuments there are in the public square, and we realized that there was no register of those. So we decided to make one.”
The first report identified more than 1,500 publicly-installed Confederate symbols, in addition to some 2,600 markers, battlefields, museums, cemeteries, and other symbols that were set apart from ostensibly unrelated public life. Fast-forward two years, and SPLC decided to compile input they’d received from communities all over the country, pointing out monuments and symbols overlooked by the original report due to the enormity of the task and the diffuse nature of the records. The new report identifies and geo-locates a staggering 1,728 of these monuments still standing — most of them in former Confederate states — including 100 public schools named for Confederate veterans. The report was also updated to reflect 110 such symbols that have been removed since the Charleston massacre, including an additional 39 public schools that have been renamed.
“We wanted to make sure we included those, because the whole idea is that we want to get the facts right,” said Hanks. “We want to have this as a piece of information that can be referenced and studied.”
The study is a relatively unique endeavor, in general, as a document that examines the profusion of certain symbols in art placed in the public sphere. SPLC leveraged existing data sets, private and governmental, that categorize landmarks and historic site markers. The monuments themselves are not generally government-funded, with the majority being privately funded by groups like Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy — UDC alone is responsible for some 700 Confederate monuments — but in most cases local and state governments were responsible for issuing the permits that allowed them to be erected on public land.
Additionally, many of these monuments constitute protected property, with laws and lawmakers that shield them from removal or obstruction, particularly in the former Confederate states. There is a hope, on the part of SPLC and the communities it represents, that the study is an important step in a push toward policy change that would make the removal of these symbols a matter of course. Attached to the report is a community action guide that helps community members to organize around issues of removal, rather than being forced to live around symbols glorifying the terrible legacy of slavery, or those which promote “Lost Cause” mythology that attempts to revise the notion that slavery was the instigating factor in the secession of the Confederate states.
“One of the things that’s sort of troubling about these monuments and symbols is that the vast majority of them have no context — they glorify the Confederacy, its heroes, and its cause: white supremacy,” said Hanks. “It’s troubling that recent polling has shown that something like only 8% of high school seniors can identify slavery as a root cause of the Civil War.”
There are a number of philosophical underpinnings to this issue. Among them is the psychological damage incurred by people of color forced to encounter these symbols in the course of their daily lives, the tolerance on the part of the United States government in the continued enshrinement and veneration of a violent secessionist faction that threatened the country, and the more general power and impact of art in the public sphere. Under other circumstances, public art might be thought of as decorative or banal, rather than an active promotional tool for community values.
“The hurt is still there,” said Hanks. “And we’re talking about the public square — this tacit approval that’s led monuments to sit there, and people have to deal with them or walk into a building named after a white supremacist when they go to pay a parking ticket, for example … . Over the last two years, we’ve heard from people talking about not only the fact that these monuments exist, but the hurt and divisiveness that they cause in their day-to-day lives.” Perhaps the initial report acted as a catalyst for sharing stories about the emotional damage wrought by these symbols, giving voice to people who had otherwise resigned themselves to suffering through this constant exposure to demoralizing symbolism.
“They are concentrated in the South, of course, but these monuments appear all over the country, immortalizing Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, in places where it has no historical context, other than to be glorifying them,” Hanks said. It bears remembering that the core rally point of the 2017 Unite the Right event in Charlottesville, Virginia — which resulted in the death of protester Heather Heyer, a multitude of injuries, civic unrest, and public outcry on both sides — was the potential removal of the Robert E. Lee monument from Emancipation Park. It seems that pro-Confederacy sentiment is a ride-or-die issue for white supremacists, and it is difficult to imagine other circumstances under which the prevailing rule of law would go so far to protect such treasonous support for an anti-US faction.
“When there’s a plaque for many of these, typically it’s revisionism, or even more flagrant,” said Hanks. “They say things like, ‘Time will reveal that the South was right,’ or things of that nature. That’s what we’re taking issue with.” These issues seemed well-reasoned and entirely justified; here’s hoping that the meticulous work on the part of SPLC helps pave the way for continued momentum in the movement to remove these anti-American monuments, which threaten the unity of our society.