Confederate Monuments Don't Belong on the Landscapes of Government

In the wake of the racially motivated murder of nine black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina's Emanuel AME Church, the chorus for removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol reached such a crescendo that Governor Nikki Haley finally conceded that the flag should be removed. In Alabama, Governor Robert Bentley went further and issued an executive order to remove all Confederate flags from that state's capitol grounds.

Now individuals are calling for the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces, citing that as relics of Jim Crow, their presence represents an affront to black citizens. Some historians have cautioned against sanitizing history by removing monuments, noting that by erasing these artifacts of segregation we "also risk losing sight" of their "insidious legacies."

Yet not all public spaces are alike, and when it comes to government-sanctioned spaces like local courthouses and state capitols, an argument can and should be made for their removal.

The vast majority of monuments that still cast a shadow over the southern landscape were built between the mid-1890s and the First World War. They were pet projects of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), the leading organization of southern white women, founded in 1894. Erecting monuments was one of many ways that these women sought to honor and vindicate the Confederate generation.

Monuments were a costly enterprise, socially, politically and financially. Prior to the rise of the UDC, most Confederate monuments were placed in cemeteries, but beginning in the 1890s such monuments were intentionally placed in public spaces, especially on the grounds of state capitols and local courthouses. The message to all who set foot there was clear--this is a white man's government.

During that decade, as southern state legislatures worked to dismantle Reconstruction and disenfranchise black men, and when lynching black bodies reached epidemic proportions across the region, the Daughters supported this culture of white supremacy by altering the southern landscape with monuments to their heroes.

Confederate monuments were not cheap and prices varied. A monument of a lone Confederate soldier, standing sentinel atop a pillar, was the least expensive and could be ordered from a catalog. More elaborate monuments, like the one in Arlington National Cemetery, represented the work of a very fine artist who was paid handsomely for his or her work.

In today's currency, the equivalent of millions of dollars were spent on building Confederate monuments. And while the UDC was savvy at raising money, funding for monuments was often supplemented by local and state governments.

So, in truth, not only did Confederate monuments enjoy the imprimatur of local and state officials, those same officials used taxpayer funds to pay for them. Those who paid the ultimate price, of course, were black southerners whose second-class citizenship was reinforced at every step--from inside the houses of government to the very land on which they sat.

Should all Confederate monuments be removed? No. However, historical context for their existence is needed if they remain. Should such monuments be removed from the grounds of state and local government? Yes.

The landscapes of government institutions should not send the message--through flags or monuments--that any of its citizens are second-class.

By removing these relics of the past to a space where those who wish to honor their heritage may do so, current state officials can help clear away the clutter of divisiveness so that all citizens may engage with their government unencumbered by the symbols of white supremacy.