The national controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate memorials in the wake of racial tragedy in Charlottesville speaks to larger questions of America’s moral and political values. The hundreds of white nationalists bearing Confederate flags and tiki torches who descended upon Charlottesville this past August are simply the latest reminder that Confederate symbols are, at their core, un-American. President Donald Trump added fuel to an already toxic racial climate by conflating the removal of Confederate monuments with those of the Founding Fathers.
The Founding Fathers, despite the moral and political contradictions represented in their support of racial slavery, generated ideas about freedom and democracy that remain larger than one individual, nation or historical era. A wide range of people of color, women, LGBTQ and others have been at the cutting edge of expanding the notions of American democracy originally conceived in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Black Americans, by virtue of their status as legal property during the forging of the nation, have been among the leading proponents of re-imaging democracy’s contours in an effort to, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “redeem America’s soul.”
Confederate monuments are un-American, offering symbols of white supremacy as a substitute to the hard-earned multicultural democracy of the present that required the sacrifice of millions of people, in war and peace, to earn. Over 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War between 1861 and 1865, but there is no moral equivalency between those who fought to preserve the United States and those who wished to betray American democracy and regarded blacks as a species of property destined to be financially, physically and sexually exploited, forever.
Freedom’s cause won the war but lost the peace, a fact gruesomely highlighted in the aftermath of Reconstruction by the rise of white hate groups, racial lynching and an 1896 Supreme Court decision that shamefully enshrined racial segregation as law. Confederate memorials extolling the heroism of the “lost cause,” the benefits of slavery and the sanctity of states’ rights paralleled these efforts, culminating in normalizing American myths and lies about white supremacy and racial slavery. These twisted representations of our national racial history were evoked in popular culture through the films “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind.”
The festering wound of racial slavery’s afterlife in white supremacist myths deserves to be studied in museums, analyzed by scholars and discussed by the general public, but should be clearly understood as morally repugnant, willfully ignorant and, ultimately, soul crushing in its naked antipathy for core American values of liberty, freedom, equality and democracy.
Confederate symbols re-emerged during the civil rights movement’s heroic period of 1954 to 1965, adopted by White Citizens’ Councils, elected officials, hate groups and ordinary citizens as a symbol of massive resistance against racial integration, black citizenship and genuine democracy.
We forget this history at our national peril.
Race and democracy remain at the core of America’s national political identity. At our best, we make historic strides, most recently with the election of Barack Obama, that make us the envy of the world. We are only liberty’s surest guardian when we are true to our moral and political values. The civil rights era, more than any other time in American history, compelled the nation to recognize racial justice as part of what King characterized as “those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers.” The demonstrations, protests and marches of that era inspired legal, legislative and economic victories that have allowed us to build a more perfect union. Embracing America’s complex, messy and unfinished history requires us to draw a sharp moral and political lines concerning national identity and citizenship.
White supremacy, racism, sexism, homo- and transphobia, assaults against the physically and mentally challenged and religious intolerance are not American values. Freedom of speech requires the respectful consideration of these points of view but not national memorials celebrating them.
America should not celebrate a Confederate legacy that continues to dishonor this nation. We are on firm political ground when we honor the abolitionists, military veterans, feminists, civil rights activists, farm workers, Native Americans, Muslims, Jews, Catholics and atheists who have bled for democracy at home and abroad and, in the process, reflect the values that make America the world’s last best hope for freedom and democracy.
Joseph is a professor of history and public affairs.