Sixteen years ago, the distinguished historian of slavery and anti-slavery movements, David Brion Davis (and my favorite graduate school professor), published a powerful piece in the New York Times Sunday Week in Review entitled, “Free at Last: The Enduring Legacy of the South’s Civil War Victory.”
The South’s “Civil War Victory”? Doesn’t everyone know the Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox? No, wrote Davis. “Though the South lost the battles, for more than a century it attained its goal: that the role of slavery in America’s history be thoroughly diminished, even somehow removed as a cause of the war.”
That’s what at stake in the battles over Confederate monuments. And why those battles are so important.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the promotion of the legend of the “Lost Cause,” a version of the Civil War in which brave, honorable, dignified and cultured Confederates waged a heroic, romantic losing struggle against the greedy, uncouth, money-obsessed Yankees who could not wait to get their hands on southern land.
This fantasy retelling of the war over slavery became celebrated in hundreds of Confederate monuments, including the “Confederate Mount Rushmore” featuring the world’s largest bas-relief sculptures of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis at Stone Mountain, Georgia. It then provided the narrative for Thomas Dixon’s popular novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), and D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster film “The Birth of a Nation,” in which KKK riders rescue the flower of white southern womanhood from the bestial depravity of freed African-American men—abetted by unscrupulous Yankee carpetbaggers.
The film, which President Woodrow Wilson screened at the White House, also provided the spark for the founding of the second Ku Klux Klan, as a group of men set fire to a huge cross atop Stone Mountain on Thanksgiving Eve, 1915 to advertise the coming attraction: “The Birth of a Nation” was coming to Atlanta over Christmas. In that group of KKK founders were several men who’d taken part in the lynching of the Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank several months earlier. (Note the deep connections between anti-Semitism and racism.)
Through most of the 20th century, the Confederates’ interpretation of their own history dominated textbooks in schools and colleges, even the historical profession, which produced dozens of volumes “documenting” the benign institution of slavery. It suffused Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling historical romance Gone with the Wind (1936) and the even more influential film starring Vivien Leigh as the indomitable southern heroine Scarlett O’Hara and Clark Gable as the dashing Confederate heart throb Rhett Butler.
In all of these cultural constructions dedicated to the Lost Cause, the reason the Civil War was actually fought—the 4 million enslaved African-Americans—effectively disappeared, except as objects of fear, derision and ridicule. In the meantime, the freed people and their descendants, particularly in the south, lived under the reign of racial terror known as Jim Crow, which didn’t just enforce segregated lunch counters, water fountains and bathrooms. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4,000 lynchings of African-Americans in 12 southern states between 1877 and 1950.
So when you hear people defend these monuments as “Southern heritage,” you know that’s just not true. They are nothing more than propaganda, monuments to a fantasy designed to erase the real history of slavery, the reason for the Civil War, and to prevent African-Americans’ rights to equality and physical security. Every single minute, they remain monuments to systemic, institutional, often violent racial oppression.
Millions of Germans joined the Nazi party during the 1930s. Where are the monuments to “Nazi heritage” in Germany? How many swastikas adorn German flags?
It’s time for them all to go. It’s time for a real Appomattox. It’s time to defeat the Confederacy, once and for all.