By Justin Vest
History–like all human endeavors–is complex and often individual nuances are lost in the overarching context of a given time. The complexities of our history are not being adequately reflected in the ongoing debate over Confederate imagery, at least in part, because the symbols themselves are not capable of representing them fully.
On Friday, South Carolina removed the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds. The movement to purge ourselves of remnants of the Civil War is seemingly picking up steam as even Congress has taken up the issue and will form a bipartisan review panel to decide on further actions. The connection of the battle flag and the Confederacy itself to racism has been well-documented. Those who continue to defend it, at best, are being deluded by their own white privilege if not specifically by beliefs in white supremacy. The argument that the Civil War was about states’ rights or that the flag merely represents southern heritage fails to make a very logical connection–states sought the right to maintain their economic system built upon slave labor. Our heritage–which I say as an Alabama native–cannot be divorced from the oppression of slavery or the violence of the Civil Rights Era.
Governor Larry Hogan has joined the fray indicating he will take steps to recall the approximately 150 specialty license plates that feature the Confederate flag, but has characterized additional efforts to remove Confederate symbols as “political correctness run amok.” Specifically, he was responding to calls for the statue of former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney to be removed from the capitol grounds in Annapolis. Taney was a Maryland native and wrote the majority opinion in the court’s Dred Scott decision upholding slavery and denying citizenship to African Americans. Hogan also seemed to think any objections to Taney should be offset by the presence of a statue of Thurgood Marshall–the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court. These debates are cropping up across the country. Renaming highways, schools, and parks named after prominent Confederate leaders seems like common sense as does ending state recognition of Confederate holidays. Other images, such as that of Taney, are not always so clear cut.
I suspect many seeking to eradicate all vestiges of the Confederacy see it as a relatively simple means of putting to rest America’s uncomfortable relationship with race–one that has become all too apparent in the wake of hundreds of instances of police violence against people of color. Research shows that overtly racist symbols do have a negative impact on people, even if they do not exhibit other forms of racial bias, but removing these symbols will not end racism. People of color understand this and white apathy following a job well done in dispensing with signs of the Confederacy is a real danger. On the opposing side, arguments have been made that most Southerners did not own slaves and would not fight a war over slavery, but their belief in white supremacy remained prevalent as did their fear of living in a society with large numbers of free blacks. The Southern cause was a mistake and there is no value in waxing nostalgic for a mid-nineteenth century agrarian society when the pain it wrought is so clear. Furthermore, the symbols we are currently critiquing were developed to represent the ideals of the southern cause. There are not widespread monuments celebrating white southern resistance to slavery. Rather we celebrate the South’s leaders–Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson–who most certainly knew what they were fighting to preserve. We erect monuments to the Confederate soldiers for their valor in fulfilling their obligations to the military whose cause was, without a doubt, to maintain the South’s slaveholding status.
There are of course many sites dedicated to lesser known figures of the Confederacy who have slipped from our collective consciousness. Even Taney, I doubt, enjoys much name recognition. So how should we proceed with these seemingly innocuous monuments? More than outward appearances of racism, we should question the purpose such symbols serve. We like to cite history in our defense of their presence, but we hardly honor everything of historical significance. By such a measure, the country should be littered with commemorations to the contributions made by enslaved people. Some have taken on new meaning such as the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama–named after a Confederate general and member of the KKK–which now symbolizes a major triumph of the Civil Rights movement over racist oppression. The bridge’s name has even been defended by Representatives Terri Sewell (D-AL) who represents Selma and John Lewis (D-GA) who participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches–both of whom are African American–because of this powerful symbolism. There is not going to be an easy, universal solution in determining what to do with all forms of Confederate imagery. It remains in obscure place names, goes generally unrecognized in state flags, and stares at us from the forgotten faces of its immortalized adherents.
This should really be a community effort–one involving honest discussions about race and privilege–that specifically gives voice to communities of color. We should not attempt to whitewash our history, but present it honestly. Public monuments should commemorate those people and events that represent our values. Certainly that is how the monuments and tributes to the Confederacy began. But times change and give us new vantage points from which to view old events. The American people are not who they once were. We are becoming a more diverse people with non-whites expected to become the majority by 2044. Maryland will be a majority minority state as soon as 2020. So let us come together and take a hard look at how we want to be represented. Does Taney present some value to residents of Maryland or would we be better off commemorating John Brown’s raid, Harriet Tubman’s heroism, or even Baltimore activists fighting against police brutality? The past holds many important lessons for us when properly understood, but flags, monuments, and highways do not offer the necessary context to view such events with a critical eye. Better still, let us turn the energy and political will surrounding this issue into meaningful action to dismantle existing systems of violence that continue the tradition of racial oppression.