It Has Always Been About Slavery
“Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
— Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, 1861
As if he had not already dumped enough fuel on a raging inferno, President Donald Trump has now taken up common cause with the Lost Cause: the historically inaccurate, myth-driven campaign to sanctify the Confederacy. The president was apparently not satisfied with merely showing his sympathy for white supremacists, insisting that their ranks include some “very fine people.”
A day or so later, he went on Twitter to bash the movement to take down Confederate monuments and statues — though he had previously said those decisions should be left to local authorities. Trump tweeted that he was “sad” to see the “history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”
That is nonsense — sanitized blather that is widely repeated among Confederate sympathizers and apologists for Southern secession. As a Southerner born and bred, I’ve heard those arguments my entire life. And I’ve walked past elaborate memorials to men who preferred a broken, war-scarred land to a nation where black men and women could be free to own their bodies and their labor.
Neither history nor culture would be “ripped apart” by the removal of Confederate statues to museums, where they belong. Instead, the civic fabric can begin to mend when memorials to secessionists are removed from public spaces.
The mythology that honors those Confederate icons is as elaborate as it is false, with tentacles that extend through generations. There are, indeed, many “very fine people” among those who wish to keep such memorials in place, who continue to defend Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis as patriots. They don’t wish to wrest citizenship away from black and Jewish Americans, but they cannot admit that their ancestors supported the horrific institution of slavery.
But those who insist on honoring the mythology of the Lost Cause should consider this: White supremacists see the Confederacy for what it was. They know that Lee and Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest and P.G.T. Beauregard fought to preserve an institution that kept black men and women in bondage — never paid for their labor, whipped and beaten at the whim of their masters, their children and spouses sold off for profit.
That’s why so many rebel flags hover over white nationalist rallies; that’s why neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, the Traditionalist Worker Party and other hate groups gathered at Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Lee. They weren’t there just to defend a piece of bronze. They were there to defend the ideology for which Lee was prepared to give his life — the South’s right to enslave men and women of African heritage.
Since Reconstruction, Confederate sympathizers have been about the business of constructing a competing narrative about the Civil War built on “alternative facts” — otherwise known as lies. They claim that the secessionists wanted to protect the South against “Northern aggression.” They insist the war was waged to defend states’ rights. (The states’ right to do what?)
According to Vice News, there are more than 1,500 Confederate memorials scattered throughout the country, most of them, as you might expect, in the 11 states of the Old Confederacy or border states such as Kentucky. A few, however, are in the Northeast, the Midwest and even the Far West.
Most of those memorials were erected long after the war ended — between 1890 and 1940, according to historians. That’s no coincidence: Those statues began to rise after Union troops pulled out of the South and white supremacists began to assume power once again. The KKK was created, Jim Crow laws were passed, and the lynching of innocent black people became commonplace. That’s what those statues commemorate.
If we are going to honor history, let’s do that. Let’s honor the facts, the sordid truth, the ugly reality: The Confederacy was built on a defense of the institution of slavery — an insistence that the white race was morally and intellectually superior and ordained by God to rule over the black race.
David Duke knows that. That’s why he was in Charlottesville.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.