During his Saturday night re-election rally in Tulsa, President Donald Trump — ever our Uniter-in-Chief in times of crisis — turned his attention to Confederate statues and monuments.
In his two-hour address to an enthusiastic (but smaller than expected) crowd, President Trump decried “the unhinged left-wing mob” that “desecrated our monuments” and was “tearing down our statues.”
The President was referencing the recent removal, destruction, and vandalizing of statues and memorials honoring Confederate generals and soldiers in the wake of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and marches.
Trump continued: “They want to demolish our heritage so they can impose their new repressive regime in its place.”
Pause the tape.
Ignoring the blatant use of divisive tribalistic rhetoric (the antagonistic “They” and sympathetic “Our”), we need to talk about heritage and how it relates to the Confederate States of America.
The Civil War is one of the most cataclysmic events in American history. Lasting from 1861 to 1865, the war claimed the lives of more than 700,000 Americans and left an indelible mark on our national consciousness.
I grew up in East Texas. In accordance with our statewide curriculum, I was taught the central conflict that ignited the “War Between the States” was the bullish U.S. government’s tendency to overstep its bounds and impose its corporate will upon the states. This is the heart of the “States’ Rights” rationale for the “War of Northern Aggression.”
In our textbooks, slavery was alluded to but never dwelled upon. It existed in a vacuum, as if the institution of slavery was something America stumbled into, rather than consciously choose to implement. White complicity and the proliferation of white supremacy ideology that allowed and justified the enslavement of 4 million Black Americans were totally ignored.
If you believe the removal of Confederate statues is an affront to your heritage, let me tell you a little about slavery. Slavery is a slow-motion genocide; it not only strips human beings of their dignity, but it also obliterates cultural hertiage. The lineages of many Black Americans terminates at southern plantations because there’s no way of knowing which African country their ancestors were bought and sold from — no one thinks to preserve the genealogical heritage of cargo.
When the Confederacy seceded from the United States, the various Articles of Secession mention slavery more than any other cause or justification for leaving the Union. Texas, in particular, wrote, “proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color — a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law.”
In the infamous Cornerstone Address, Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy proclaimed, “Our new government…foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, 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.”
Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution of the Confederacy states, “In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government.”
And William Thompson, the designer of the Confederate Flag, declared, “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the heavenly ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.”
In the words of the Confederacy’s own leaders, you cannot untangle slavery from the Confederacy without willfully ignoring large chunks of its history.
However, only a couple of decades after the end of the Civil War, the PR campaign to rebrand “The Lost Cause of the Confederacy” began. The end of chattel slavery dealt a massive economic blow to the southern states, and it didn’t take long for white plantation owners to begin pining for the “good old days” when enslaved black men and women did all the hard work for them.
Southern historians and organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy began recasting the Civil War as a noble and valiant effort to defend the Southern way of life from the tyranny of the North (in the vein of Texans defending the Alamo or the 300 Spartans fighting at Thermopylae). A vast majority of Confederate statues and monuments were erected in the 20th century during periods of racial progress — primarily the early 1900s. These statues — which were molded into heroic and domineering poses — were intentionally placed in highly visible locations, like courthouses, parks, and city squares. Imagine being Black and forced to walk underneath the watchful gaze of the generals who fought for your enslavement.
All of this revisionist propaganda worked: Whether we realize it or not, many of us carry bucolic and romanticized images of the Antebellum South that conveniently sidestep the brutal realities of slavery. We ignore the Black souls and bodies eviscerated by whip and blade, raped, and brutalized by their masters in favor of dashing Southern gentlemen, joyfully maternalistic servants spouting ancient wisdom, and the golden-hour glow upon white cotton fields.
Statues honoring the Confederacy are not only a testament to a version of the South that did not exist, but they were also a tool used by white supremacists to assert dominance in public spaces where Black people were most likely to see them.
Did the Confederate Army contain brilliant tacticians, war strategists, and brave soldiers? Yes. But personal sacrifice and bravery don’t automatically legitimize the cause for which they fought and died. Brave and brilliant men and women exist on either side of every conflict in history. The litmus test of who we celebrate and honor shouldn’t be their courage, resolve, and intelligence, but the ideals to which they pledged those otherwise admirable qualities.
And, while I hate plumbing the depths of the “Nazi Germany” well, the people of Germany don’t feel the need to erect statues of Adolf Hitler or Heinrich Himmler to remind themselves of the horrors of the Holocaust or pay homage to their heritage. And just like not every brave Nazi soldier worked at a death camp, not every brave Confederate soldier owned slaves — but that doesn’t excuse their role in fighting for a hate-filled and oppressive ideology.
They weren’t patriots; they were insurrectionists. And, in the parlance of my Southern heritage, they “got their asses whupped.” Even Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army, believed it was unwise to erect statues honoring the Confederacy.
The production cycle of the Lord of the Rings trilogy lasted longer than the Confederacy. They do not deserve to be honored by statue or have their names inscribed on our military bases or public schools. We should instead seek to honor true American heroes or respectfully memorialize the horrors of our history so we’re reminded not to repeat the past.
For those who do look fondly upon the triumphant sculptures of Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford Forrest galloping toward the horizon with saber outstretched, I doubt you’re morosely reflecting on the horrific institution they endeavored to preserve and defend – because you know in your heart that’s not why the statue was built in the first place.
At best, you’re reveling in your own ahistorical illiteracy. At worst, you’re waxing nostalgic for an era when men fought and died for the rights to buy, own, and sell other image-bearers of our Creator as property.
Removing Confederate statues is not the obliteration of history, but the acknowledgment that we’re finally ready to honestly reckon with our history. We don’t need granite and bronze to remind ourselves of the good, bad, and ugly of our heritage. For that, we have books, museums, and the lived experiences of our citizens.
Stripping the Confederacy of its symbolic power over the South won’t put an end to racism or white supremacy in America. But a symbolic victory is still a victory, and it’s the least we can do.