Update: It’s worth reading Robert Moore’s post on the SPLC report. I agree that a bottom-up approach to Confederate monuments must not be overlooked, but I also believe he too easily dismisses the insights that can be gleaned from looking at this issue top-down. If that is all we do we will miss the opportunity to make broader connections that help us to make sense of things like the distribution of monument erections over time. No doubt, we will find a wide range of stories on the local level that help explain what motivated communities to erect monuments and engage in commemorative activities that celebrate and honor the Confederacy. Those stories are important. None of this, however, negates the fact that the vast majority of Confederate monuments were erected at a time when black Americans were disfranchised. We need both narratives.
Yesterday the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report that catalogs examples of Confederate iconography across the United States. The report is well worth downloading and reading and includes a state-by-state list of monuments and a wide range of public sites named in honor of the Confederacy and its leaders. It is not comprehensive, but it does provide a solid foundation. The report concludes by offering suggestions for people interested in bringing attention to these sites in their own communities.
There are a number of helpful charts, including the one below, which plots the dedication of monuments and other public sites on a timeline. This is perfect for classroom use. As the report notes, you can clearly see the spike in dedications at the height of Jim Crow during the early twentieth century and in response to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s.
The most important point that John makes is that the noticeable spike in the early twentieth century would have been impossible without the disfranchisement of African Americans. That is a point that really needs to sink in for some people.
He also reminds his audience that Richmond’s commemorative landscape was not inevitable. Projects were begun and abandoned for any number of reasons and even within organizations pushing for the erection of monuments, there were serious disagreements surrounding their form and structure. Finally, he makes the obvious though often overlooked point that these monuments are not primarily intended to teach lessons about history. They must be understood as reflections of the individuals, organizations and communities responsible for their establishment.
John’s presentation is a reminder that our current debate must be understood as a continuation of discussions that go back to the very founding of these public sites.