Abraham Lincoln once delivered a speech about the challenges facing the nation during his era. “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations,” Lincoln concluded. “They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride!—how consoling in the depths of affliction!”
Lincoln’s admonition is a terrific place to start this blog. And this, too, shall pass away.
Like virtually everyone else in the country—with the notable exception of the president of the United States (POTUS)—I watched with horror and disgust the spectacle of white supremacists marching about and rioting in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the weekend of August 11-12, 2017. How such displays of mass ignorance and bigotry could occur in the United States in the twenty-first century is both mystifying and not mystifying, utterly shocking and sadly expected.
The ostensible reason for all the marching and violence was because the white supremacists were upset with a decision to remove a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville. I believe this explanation is a convenient pretext for bad behavior by hate-mongering thugs, but, for the sake of argument, let’s examine the Confederate symbols issue. In this blog, I want to discuss Confederate symbols and southern history in detail, with a few parting comments about the morally bankrupt 45th POTUS.
By the way, I feel reasonably qualified to discuss this topic at length because I was one of a group of scholars who researched and wrote a book about this issue in 2000. Titled Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South, the book is a bit dated. Nonetheless, it remains a useful resource for understanding the salient issues.
Signs v. Symbols
Confederate monuments have become symbols of the racial divide that spans across American history. The problems underlying the Charlottesville episode—assuming that Confederate monuments were the trigger—involve the inherent ambiguity of symbols as well as the ambiguities of southern history in general, and Confederate history in particular. Let us consider each issue in turn.
A quick discussion of terminology: The Confederate monuments issue is at its core a debate about the meaning of symbols. Symbols by definition are open to multiple interpretations. Consider this distinction: A sign is an object (monument, flag, or image) that possesses only one fixed and more-or-less agreed-upon referent. Thus, when I drive my car up to an intersection, I see an octagon-shaped metal marker with white lettering and a red backdrop mounted on a pole. One word, sans period, is displayed: “Stop”—and that’s it. The font is always the same, the placement of the word is always the same, and the context is always the same. Even if I cannot speak English, I should understand the meaning of a “Stop” sign. We do not want a driver to approach an intersection and ponder the meaning of the metal object affixed to the pole. “Hmm. I wonder what I am supposed to do here. Ah, well. I will proceed into the intersection without applying the car brake.” We cannot have this kind of misinterpretation and still expect people to survive car trips. Ideally, a sign is a clear, unambiguous object with a single referent and it has the same meaning for everyone who encounters it.
By contrast, a symbol is the expression of an idea—it can be a physical slab of granite, a hand gesture, words, or an image, among other things—that can be perceived differently by different audiences at different times in different contexts. During his time as prime minister of England, Winston Churchill famously held up two fingers. At the time, everyone understood that he meant, “V for Victory.” During the 1960s, when a young person displayed those same two fingers in the United States, it was meant as a peace sign. The hand gesture was exactly the same, but the times and context changed.
The Ambiguities of Southern History
Before we specifically turn our attention to Confederate monuments, let’s spend a moment reflecting on the ambiguities of southern history. Published histories often feature narratives known as “Whig history.” In other words, most published histories discuss “top down” political figures. In southern history prior to the 1970s, Whig history was written by whites and about whites because whites mostly were the only people who held political office. Because many whites discussed in Whig history typically built their careers on protecting their political, economic, and social systems from encroachment by people of color, “southern history” was a catch-all term referring to the Whig history of whites. The idea of black studies and black history, with a few notable exceptions, came late to the southern history canon.
Some revisionist historians contend that race is not the central feature of southern history. Don’t believe it. Historian and political scientist V. O. Key, Jr., famously wrote, “In its grand outlines the politics of the South revolves around the position of the Negro. It is at times interpreted as a politics of cotton, as a politics of free trade, as a politics of agrarian poverty, or as a politics of planter and plutocrat. Although such interpretations have a superficial validity, in the last analysis the major peculiarities of southern politics go back to the Negro. Whatever phases of the southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later, the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro.” Nowhere is this comment better illustrated than in the story of southern society as it evolved from the days of slavery before the 1860s through Reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s, the rise of segregation at the end of the nineteenth century, and the gradual integration of the races during the latter half of the twentieth century.
Confederate Monuments in Historical Context
Now consider a Confederate symbol, such as a monument, in the context of southern history. During the three decades following the end of the Civil War, Ladies Memorial Associations (LMAs) in many small southern towns helped erect funereal monuments to honor groups of fallen Confederate soldiers, often inside cemeteries and graveyards or on adjacent property. Their intentions largely, although not exclusively, were to assist loved ones in grieving for husbands, fathers, sons, cousins, and nephews who had died during the conflict. The monuments were apolitical. (The cemetery monument erected in Cheraw, South Carolina in 1867, below, was perhaps the first Confederate monument erected apart from markers placed on individual graves.)
As the generation of fighting men and their grieving families died off, successor organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) spearheaded efforts to erect monuments on public property—on courthouse lawns, in front of schools, on traffic islands near the town square, and in public parks. Rather than honoring loved ones buried in a cemetery, as LMA-sponsored monuments did, SCV and UDC-sponsored monuments typically honored the values of dead Confederate soldiers. Allegorical figures such as Vindicatrix suggested that while the Southern Confederacy had tasted defeat in the war, the values of the Old South lived on in the hearts and minds of true (read: white) southerners. Those values theoretically were “noble”—pride of place, a sense of genteel manners, and a respect for long-standing traditions and customs (read: white superiority and black inferiority). White southerners had lost the war, but, assisted by the SCV and the UDC, they were determined to win the peace.
With their inclusion on public property—financed and erected by white political leaders and/or their wives—the monuments contained an implicit message to African Americans. As long as blacks stayed in their place on the proper side of the color line and did not complain about poorly performing schools, a lack of meaningful employment opportunities, and their second-class status within a land supposedly devoted to equality under law, all was well. Confederate monuments constructed (or repaired) on public property during the Jim Crow era (1880s-1960s) therefore became symbols of white supremacy and traditional southern values. Wish I were in the land of cotton; old times there are not forgotten.
Funereal monuments built in the period from the 1860s until about 1900 tended to be obelisks or they depicted grieving allegorical figures, often female, and seldom had a direct or indirect political content. Monuments constructed in public spaces in the period stretching from the late 1880s through especially the 1920s, although occasionally a bit later, often featured inscriptions about how Confederate soldiers died in defense of southern values and/or the homeland. The monuments sometimes featured an armed soldier. Often the soldier faced north so the faithful Confederate sentry could keep a watchful eye on the treacherous Yankees, who might be sneaking up on good, white, Christian southerners in the dark
of night. (Below, see the Marshall, TX, Confederate monument, erected in front of the courthouse in 1906, as an example of a "political" monument.)
Notice that the placement of a Confederate monument, the figures depicted on the monument, the message inscribed on the monument, and the time period in which the monument was constructed altered the meaning. A statue erected in honor of fallen Confederate soldiers placed in front of a southern courthouse in 1907 bearing words about the nobility of the Old South was (wink, wink) a message for blacks to yield to white supremacy, while an obelisk constructed in a graveyard in 1867 honoring the fallen men of the Sixth Cavalry from a particular neighborhood or town was simply a means of honoring and memorializing deceased loved ones.
As for Confederate flags—especially the square red and blue flag featuring the St. Andrew’s cross known as the battle flag (which is not the Stars and Bars)—their meaning changed over time as well. At the end of the war, surviving veterans packed away their battle flags. It was considered profane to pull them out in gaudy displays of pride in southern heritage or defiance against the government. In fact, the only time a veteran unfurled the flag was to honor a dead Confederate veteran at his funeral or during a reunion ceremony where veterans would gather to reminisce about the days of fire with their devoted band of brothers.
Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, Confederate flags, especially the battle flag, began appearing at football games, on belt buckles and posters, and on cheap merchandise. The battle flag was no longer square. It assumed many shapes and sizes. The States’ Rights Democratic (Dixiecrat) Party used the modified battle flag as a symbol of rebellion. By the 1960s, the battle flag was associated in the public mind with racism, defiance to court-ordered integration, and a willingness to flaunt the conventions of a changing society that was becoming more tolerant of blacks, Latinos, Jews, and women in positions of power.
The question in the current epoch concerns what messages Confederate monuments and flags convey today. Here is the short answer: When the monuments are located in cemeteries and feature allegorical figures, they represent the history of grieving that occurred in the immediate postwar period. When the monuments appear in the town square, they are reminders of the era of white supremacy. When a Confederate battle flag is displayed in a museum, it represents historical memory. When it is displayed on a flag pole in front of a government building or at a Klan rally, it is a symbol of white supremacy and bigotry.
Heritage or hate? It is both, depending on the context. Such is the ambiguous nature of a Confederate symbol.
The Debate Isn’t Really About Monuments and Flags
Why do so many white people embrace symbols associated, fairly or unfairly, with bigotry, hatred, and ignorance? I believe that these people are united by a common bond: Fear. Fear convinces white supremacists that others, somehow different from them, have negatively affected their lives. Instead of looking ahead toward improving their condition as individuals, these sad sacks look to the past and think of themselves collectively. They yearn for the halcyon days when white men were masters of their domain and no one, least of all men and women of a different race or ethnicity, questioned their unbridled authority. Anything or anybody challenging the status quo threatens the established social order, and threats must be handled through extralegal means, if necessary. These folks fear the unknown future where uncertainty exists and the order of things undoubtedly will change.
These people typically are the least educated and the least prepared for a rapidly changing world. They are not well-traveled, well-read, or empathetic toward people who do not share their values. They are mired in the detritus of their lives, barely making ends meet. They are frightened and they want easy answers.
Like all good con artists, Donald Trump saw what they needed and served it up, piping hot.
Donald Trump as a Symbol of White Anger
Let me close with a word about President Trump and his reluctance to condemn angry white supremacists. Why is everyone so shocked and surprised? Donald Trump has become a symbol in his own right. We had a well-educated, thoughtful, understated black president. We damn near had a woman as president. For angry white men who miss the good old days—Wish I were in the land of cotton; old times there are not forgotten again—when minorities, women, and gays knew their place and stayed there, these developments are disturbing. These angry whites railed against changing times by reaching out for a retrograde candidate. They got one.
Barack was a thoughtful, reflective, cool customer, “No Drama Obama.” Donald is a loud, obnoxious, shoot-from-the-hip bore: “dumb as a stump Trump.” Barack was about nuances and mastering policy details. Donald mouths alt-right bumper-sticker slogans and does not know or want to know the policy details. Barack sought to heal the wounds of divisiveness when a white supremacist shot and killed blacks in Charleston, South Carolina. Donald fanned the flames of hatred in Charlottesville and reveled in the chance to divide the nation.
Barack was a glimpse of the future. Donald is a return to the past.
Just as Confederate monuments and flags are symbols of a bygone era, Donald Trump is a symbol of a time when white men ran the country. Oh, how some white folks miss the good old days (which never existed to the extent that myths suggest). According to white supremacist lore, people of color were safely sequestered in menial jobs and lived in ghettos, as they should. Women could be grabbed by the pussy with impunity. Gays remained hidden in the closet lest they be prosecuted for practicing the love that dare not speak its name.
Trump recognized that many angry whites felt marginalized. They wanted a return to the good old days. He promised them that he would make things right [white]—“make America great [white] again.” In many ways, he became the president of white supremacists, the champion of the values of the Old South symbolized by Confederate monuments and flags displayed on public property. In short, he became a symbol—ambiguous and yet [wink, wink] meaningful to the angry whites subsisting on the fringes of society. No wonder he won't condemn white supremacists.
Enjoy your Shit-Soup
Here is an evocative analogy. Political leaders resemble chefs hired to cook a meal. Over time, the meals all taste the same. Some folks become upset and seek a new chef to “shake things up” and change the recipe. In 2016, they couldn’t find a chef they liked. No matter. When people are angry enough, they don’t even mind spoiling the meal, especially if they believe that others—elites—are enjoying a better soup than they have been served.
We hired a non-chef, Trump, to prepare our soup. In reality, he promised to shit in the soup. For some enraged whites, that was fine because they were upset with the way the soup was being prepared under his predecessor.
Trump’s working class supporters cheered, “take that, status quo motherfuckers! How do you like shit in your soup?” Trump’s sycophantic advisers and his sophisticated supporters now are forced to take a whiff of the Trump shit-soup and say, “ah, that sure is some sweet Bouillabaisse!”
Trump’s most loyal supporters will never admit that they are slurping an old fat white dummy's diarrhea. They will keep sucking down the shit-soup and coming back for more. A few self-aware shit-eaters may eventually mutter, “gee, this soup tastes funny,” but most will keep right on slurping.
For the rest of us, shit-soup is shit-soup. Only one response makes sense—we retch and turn away. We count the days until we can throw out the shit-soup and get some fresh soup in here. Ah, how we count the days!
In the meantime, Confederate monuments and flags, as well as Donald Trump, litter the landscape.
Have faith, though. As Lincoln reminded us, And this, too, shall pass away.