Americans have probably had about enough of Confederate monuments this week, but the dual equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson whisked away from its pedestal Wednesday morning in Baltimore is worth examining, especially in light of President Trump’s continued fixation on the issue.
The vast majority of Confederate monuments were erected after the turn of the twentieth century. In addition to proclaiming the heroism of Confederates and their cause, these bronze and marble statuary announced white victory in a 40-year struggle to define and control the postwar Southern economy and to deny African American political influence. Key to this process was the disenfranchisement of nearly all African Americans and a significant number of white southerners, too.
The timing of Baltimore’s Jackson-Lee statue is very odd. Why should a city in a state that sat out the Civil War erect a Confederate monument in 1948? Who erects a statue of former Confederate generals on the very heels of fighting and winning a war for democracy? People who want to send a message to black veterans, the Supreme Court, and the president of the United States, that’s who.
“[The statue] was designed to intimidate African Americans and to reassure white Americans in a moment of rising black power.”
In the immediate post-World War II moment, American values, particularly the rule of law, were under assault ― by Americans. During the summer of 1946, southern whites blinded, castrated, and killed 56 African Americans. White civilians were assisted ably by local law enforcement agencies, which engaged in an orgy of official violence that was extreme even by Jim Crow standards. Many of the victims were veterans. When ex-Marine Timothy Hood removed the Jim Crow sign from a streetcar in Brighton, Alabama, he was shot five times by the conductor, arrested, jailed, and executed by the chief of police with a single shot to the head. As many as five former black GIs were killed at the hands of the Birmingham police in the first six weeks of 1946.
Confronted in the White House by black leaders demanding that he stop the violence, President Harry Truman created a special President’s Commission on Civil Rights. As the committee went to work, Truman argued that there was a “need today for a dramatic reminder to our people of the American heritage which they enjoy.” In May 1947, Truman announced a traveling exhibit of America’s key democratic documents, including original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. (Interestingly, the constitutional amendments that put life into the emancipation proclamation were considered too provocative to be included.) Dubbed the “Freedom Train,” the red, white, and blue streamliner visited each of the 48 contiguous states. Towns and cities were encouraged to hold “Rededication Weeks” to coincide with the arrival of the traveling exhibit, in which citizens would pledge to uphold the democratic principles of the nation. Drawing conflict out into the open, the Freedom Train forbade segregated viewing of the exhibit. Memphis and Birmingham let it pass them by.
In a special message to Congress in February 1948, President Truman laid out a 10-point legislative agenda based on the recommendations outlined in the President’s Commission on Civil Rights’ 1947 report, To Secure These Rights. Although the president did not adopt the Commission’s general condemnation of segregation and racial hierarchy, Truman did pledge at this time to issue executive orders against racial discrimination in federal employment, to end segregation in the armed forces, and to desegregate interstate transportation. When Congress failed to pursue his legislative agenda, Truman turned to his executive powers.
Truman’s policy shift meant that for the first time since the 1870s, the executive branch of the federal government was in alignment with the fight against critical components of white supremacy. In 1948, the Justice Department sided with the NAACP in its challenge to racially restrictive housing covenants. In its decision in Shelley v. Kramer, the Supreme Court ruled that judicial enforcement of private agreements forbidding the sale of homes to African Americans (and, frequently, Jews, Asians, and Catholics) was enough “state action” to bring such laws under the umbrella of the Fourteenth Amendment. Such covenants were thus now declared unconstitutional.
This is the context in which Baltimore, a city with a large black working class and a prosperous African American elite, a top black newspaper, the Baltimore Afro-American, and a powerful NAACP chapter that included native-son Thurgood Marshall, chose to erect a monument to Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. This seemingly “historical” move had nothing whatsoever to do with “heritage.” Three times as many Marylanders fought for the Union as for the Confederacy. This move was designed to intimidate African Americans and to reassure white Americans in a moment of rising black power. The 1948 Baltimore statue reveals the true intent of Confederate monuments and their makers ― and the intentions of those who march under their colors today. Perhaps it is time for another Freedom Train. Its first stop should be the White House.