As the taking down of monuments to Robert E. Lee continues to create controversy, I weighed in with some perspectives at New York:
While observing the brouhaha over Robert E. Lee’s legacy that has arisen again after certain cities (most famously New Orleans and Charlottesville, Virginia) have chosen to take down monuments to the general who surrendered at Appomattox, I had the frequent thought that the debate suffered under the misapprehension that these monuments were memorials to the Confederacy. They weren’t. They were monuments to the neo-Confederacy that dominated the South and national race relations up until and in some respect beyond the civil-rights movement. In his second eloquent take on why the monuments need to come down, Adam Serwer makes the key point:
“The Lee monument in New Orleans went up not in 1876 but in 1884, as racist paramilitaries like the White League helped the Democratic Party re-establish its political dominance over the city; these statues are commemorations of those victories, not politically neutral commemorations of fallen warriors. They were raised to, in the words of the historian David Blight, help ‘construct a story of noble sacrifice for a holy cause of home and independence, and especially in the service of a racial ideology that would sustain white supremacy.'”
This is true not just of monuments to Lee and other Confederate leaders, but of that other recent source of controversy, the maintenance of Confederate emblems (typically the Confederate battle flag) on southern state flags and at state capitals. For the most part, these emblems were adopted not immediately after the Civil War, but after the South had regained its “sovereignty” and proceeded to erect a Jim Crow society (in Mississippi, that was in 1894) — or even much later, in the 1950s, when Jim Crow was finally challenged in the courts and in civil protests (the Confederate battle flag appeared on the flag of my own home state of Georgia in 1956). As the preeminent political scientists who studied this issue concluded:
“The battle flag was never adopted by the Confederate Congress, never flew over any state capitols during the Confederacy, and was never officially used by Confederate veterans’ groups. The flag probably would have been relegated to Civil War museums if it had not been resurrected by the resurgent KKK and used by Southern Dixiecrats during the 1948 presidential election.”
Neo-Confederacy is in some respects even more consciously racist than the Confederacy itself. But however you assess its motives, it has been very clearly focused not on the personalities and sacrifices of the Civil War, but on the racist South’s long and amazingly successful struggle to maintain white supremacy despite the abolition (formally, at least) of slavery and the enactment of the Civil War amendments to the Constitution that were long in conflict with southern realities. As Serwer notes, Lee was a convenient symbol of the supposed “reconciliation” between North and South that made Jim Crow possible.
“The so-called ‘Redemption’ that ended Reconstruction did not come from weary Americans wanting to lay down the sword, it came from the champions of the white South reddening their swords with the blood of the emancipated, and the white North making a conscious decision that the cost of protecting the freedmen’s rights was not worth paying.”
By his surrender at Appamattox, and his much-honored postwar career, Robert E. Lee was very much a symbol of the idea that in losing the Civil War the white South had given up slavery but maintained its “honor,” its “states’ rights,” and its self-determination in choosing to subjugate ex-slaves and deny them the rights for which the war was allegedly fought, at least in northern eyes. The postwar white terror that afflicted the South until the United States wearily abandoned Reconstruction was invariably treated as a product of Reconstruction rather than what is actually was: a partial victory for the “lost cause” that lasted much longer than the Confederacy.
It’s this neo-Confederacy that must be acknowledged and finally repudiated by people in all parts of the country, in no small part because all parts of the country were complicit in the horrible betrayal of African-Americans (and the white people who died and sacrificed on their behalf) that occurred when Reconstruction was abandoned and white supremacy reigned supreme in the former Confederacy.