On August 11 and 12, 2017, a far-right movement called “Unite the Right” marched in protest of the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. While the angry and hateful group of “protestors” made their motivations and justifications abundantly clear, it was also clear that none of them had stopped to check what Robert E. Lee’s thoughts on Confederate monuments were. Robert E. Lee after the Civil War was a different person than the one who led the Confederates against the Union, and his opinions would probably shock some far-righters – if they weren’t certain to denounce it as “fake news” rather than listening to its message. Lee opposed erecting Civil War monuments of any kind, and he specifically denounced the raising of Confederate statues.
If the leader of the Confederacy opposed raising Confederate monuments, where does the push to build them come from? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is embedded in America’s long and troubling history of racism, particularly racism in the South. There can be little doubt that the current efforts to fight Confederate monument removal have similar roots.
More Than Just Statues In General – Lee Specifically Opposed Confederate Statues
Robert E. Lee didn’t just vocally oppose Civil War monuments in general. He also specifically spoke out about Confederate statues and why they were a bad idea. Lee wrote his opinion on an 1866 proposal to erect a Stonewall Jackson statue, stating:
“As regards the erection of such a monument as is contemplated; my conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the Country, would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating its accomplishment; & of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour.”
Lee had a better idea for any efforts to memorialize the Civil War – “All I think that can now be done, is to aid our noble & generous women in their efforts to protect the graves & mark the last resting places of those who have fallen, & wait for better times.”
If Not From Confederate Leaders, Where Did The Push For Statues Come From? This Damning Chart Clearly Illustrates The Racist MotivationsPhoto: Metaweb / CC-BY
Those calling for the removal of Confederate monuments in the modern age claim they are symbols of racism, whereas opponents of their removal claim they’re a part of Southern heritage. However, a damning chart released by the Southern Poverty Law Center and simplified by MotherJones, shows that the movements to erect Confederate statues have obvious been racially motivated. In times of racial turmoil, such as the Jim Crow era or the height of the Civil Rights movement, the creation of Confederate monuments skyrocketed. In more tension-free times, nobody seemed to care about putting up statues.
Confederate Monuments Started Appearing In Earnest During The Jim Crow Era
The Civil War ended in 1865, and, although a few Confederate statues were erected in the immediate aftermath, they didn’t really start to appear in earnest until the Jim Crow era, which began in the late 1870s and continued into the 20th century. During this time, Black rights were rolled back in the South via the system of Jim Crow laws. These racist laws restricted the personal freedoms of Black folks, who had been federally protected in the immediate wake of the Civil War, and the laws began to enforce segregation. Eventually, Black Americans were even stripped of their right to vote in some states. During this time period in which white supremacy was being asserted in the South, dozens of Confederate monuments were built.
The Trend Really Took Off In The Era Of Lynching
The construction of Confederate monuments really began to take off as the era of lynching began. Emboldened by continued segregation and the “success” of Jim Crow laws, racists were at their peak in the South as the 20th century began. The Klu Klux Klan saw a resurgence in power, and racially motivated lynchings became a frighteningly common event. This was the peak of post-Civil War white supremacy in America, and it was a time period that saw hundreds of Confederate monuments go up.