My Position on Confederate Monuments

In 2011 I published a piece at the Atlantic about the vandalism of the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville. This week I was asked to reflect on how my understanding of this debate has evolved since then. Click here to read it.

My thinking on this complex issue continues to evolve. One of the reasons why this has been a struggle for me is that I am no longer willing to box myself in. This debate engages me as an educator, historian, activist, and protester. It engages me as a concerned citizen.

27 comments… add one
  • Sandi Saunders Aug 19, 2017

    While I never faulted you for your position and always appreciate your opinions and lessons, I am really happy to see this post! Great commentary, and this Virginian with Confederate ancestors thanks you.

    I think the evidence does show that white supremacy has always been the “theme” for many of the shrines that white supremacists are still defending with malevolence and even violence. They know that to take them down will erase their message, not reverence for our ancestor’s bravery and sacrifice. I pray that more of my fellow Southerners will wake up to that truth.

  • Kristoffer Aug 19, 2017

    A nice self-examination. Well done.

  • Carroll Aldridge Aug 20, 2017

    Obviously Mr. Levin you have traveled a great distance to reach your conclusions. Your thoughts and remarks are noted, respected. However I feel your conclusions only tell part of the story. In this I wonder if such a mass removal of Confederate and may I add (Southern Culture) — appears a bit like a sanitation procedure? Some of this monuments have been around so long that they are part of the landscape. Like the old oak tree down the lane. Like history itself I suspect that most of the population gives little notice… (aren’t most folks looking at their I-phones these days) ? Perhaps one can be a bit too introspective. I was born in the 1950’s and have no guilt whatsoever concerning slavery. Why should I? None of my ancestors owned anyone. However I admit there was a time when Slavery & the right of ownership was the law of the land – The United States. Laws change – some for good reason – some not . To me the former capital of the Confederacy is in many ways an entire museum. To strip it publicly of all Confederate vestiges and remove to a warehouse does seem a bit Orwellian.

    • woodrowfan Aug 20, 2017

      I don’t think guilt is the right word, but every white person in the US has benefited somewhat from, if not slavery, then Jim Crow. It not only created wealth that in some cases continues to benefit families and institutions, it reserved some benefits of American society and the economy for whites. I didn’t realize it until I was an adult, but as a kid in the 1960s-70s my nice Ohio suburban neighborhood was all white. There were no “whites only” signs anywhere to be seen, but when my parents went to find a house and a mortgage in 1963 they would have been steered to particular areas. If one of my Dad’s black coworkers at GM went to the same realtor and bank he would have been steered to other neighborhoods where property values were not as high and the schools not as good. As a result I got to go to really good schools and my parents built up enough equity in their home that when they retired and sold their home in the 1990s they got a nice return and could afford a nice place to live out the rest of their lives. My Dad’s coworker’s kids would have gone to lesser schools, and when he retired he’d have a lot less equity in his home which meant a less financially comfortable retirement. All for no other reason than my Dad and his coworker had different colored skin.
      My Dad’s family never owned slaves. (My Mom’s sure did, that’s another story altogether). Heck, at least one of Dad’s ancestors was (probably) an abolitionist and another died fighting for the Union at Perryville. But nonetheless, my Dad profited from the racial system that favored him solely because he was white, a system that began as part of the slave system, and was maintained to preserve as much of that system as possible.

      I don’t feel guilt. As you said, I never owned a slave. But that doesn’t mean I can ignore the long-term effects of slavery and recognize that my life has been a bit better because of it.

    • Sandi Saunders Aug 21, 2017

      Well the good news for you is that there is no “mass removal” and there likely will not be. And no, you may not call them “Southern Culture,” the South was and is much more than slavery or the confederacy. The confederacy has been damaging the South for over 150 years.

      The literal revisionist (and racially tinged) placement of many of these monuments was the “sanitation procedure” to many who wonder why they would be in Northern States and states that were not even states during the Civil War, why they went up during racially charged political times when black people were still disenfranchised on so many levels, lynched, beaten, segregated and discriminated against with impunity.

      There is a reason that white supremacists appropriated confederate iconography in the first place. And a reason nazis and white nationalists were all over C’ville to “protest” the removal of them.

      To many black Americans these monuments will never be just “part of the landscape” and I think humanity demands we at least examine ways, up to and including removal, so the majority do not feel they are a racist message.

      As Kevin can attest, this debate has gone on for decades, it is not new. The white supremacists and nazis having the gall to openly march in defense of their icons is the main difference. They appropriated it all long, long ago.

      I was born in the 1950’s and have enough empathy and education to realize the pain attached to the confederacy and to the iconography so many cling to even as they know white supremacists do as well.

      My confederate ancestors did not own slaves either but unlike the rest of the nation of slave owners, abolitionists and racists, they chose to take up arms against our nation. In no uncertain terms, that is the definition of treason and for any reasonable person to claim they thought they could just walk away from America and their ratification of our constitution is specious as it was clear before the first shot was fired that was not going to be the case. Taking up arms against our nation even after Lincoln called for troops was treason.

      • carroll aldridge Aug 21, 2017

        Well of course you are absolutely correct — there is a lot more to the South, Southern Culture than just the Confederacy, slavery, monuments etc. In a way that’s just a small part of it. Believe the UNC Press published a huge one volume work, “The History of Southern Culture”, seventeen or eighteen years ago. Just an entertaining knock-out of a book….of course there is more white domestic terrorism than meets the eye, murders, hate crimes etc. Yet still considering the many thousands of U.S. citizens killed by handguns, murdered each year, terrorism seems to pale in comparison. I kinda think the word “terrorism” is a bit over used these days. Was C-Ville a fluke? In Virginia I believe it was. Naturally time will tell. A crazy drives down from Ohio & runs over innocent people….and of course now & then a Timothy McVeigh shows up. No one can defend slavery, however for many years it was the law of the land. Unfortunately the South got greedy & decided they could not do without it.

        The Civil War has that special appeal in that there are so many points of view. I certainly am no expert nor claim to be. Not trying to put anyone down either. The civil exchange of thoughts & openness is refreshing. However I do have a BA in History, & two years of Graduate Studies. I’m new to this blog. Mr. Levin appears to manage it well. Most individuals on here seem to be civil & carry on a well mannered discussion. I realize there’s always an exception. My grandfather had a small farm in Carolina. We were poor. The south has always been my home.

        I did catch the comments of two men of color recently concerning their thoughts on CSA monuments —

        Andrew Young of the Carter Ad./Civil Rights era remarked that the war ended in 1865 & he was over fighting it

        Former NBA star Charles Barkley said he never gave the monuments any thought. He didn’t have time for such.

        Thank you Mr. Levin for the Opportunity.

        • Sandi Saunders Aug 22, 2017

          Please know that I am also “not trying to put anyone down.” Having been in so many of these discussions I have come to the conclusion that Southerners have an especial responsibility to be careful with the words we use.

          I wonder how old either of the quotes you offered are? Were they before or after the white supremacists came marching malevolently into Charlottesville with their evil chants, white separatist and nazi manifestations to support and defend the confederate iconography? Either way, for many Southerners, that was a game changer, even before the lunatic full of hate tried to kill people.

          I come from a long, long line of poor rural Virginians and the only constant in my life has been my integrity. The more these monuments are studied the more I see that the harm and racist intentions behind them as well as the easy appropriation of them by racists, white separatists and nazis. That colors my perspective in ways that loving the South cannot.

          • carroll aldridge Aug 22, 2017

            For the record:

            Both quotes were from last weekend…after C-Ville.
            Mr. Young was on “Face the Nation” & Mr. Barkley was quoted from the MSNBC web-site.

            FYI :

            You have a strong point of view & you are well spoken.

            • Sandi Saunders Aug 22, 2017

              Thanks for the info. Barkley is of no value to me but Andrew Young most assuredly is.

              I read well above my age group of material I very much internalized early on and I came of age as my schools were desegregating. My sharp edges too often show.

    • AslanRising 1776 Aug 25, 2017

      My problem in this ongoing debate is the utter ignorance, and lack of charity. When one speaks of the racism of Lincoln, excuses are made. But when one speaks of the good a slave owner may have done for a slave, such things aren’t even entertained. Yet, this good of which I speak, which likely appalls many reading this, is not of my own making. Booker T Washington, a former slave himself, in his biography, “Up From Slavery”, speaks of the good. Also, I do not hear about the black families who benefited from the black slaves they owned. Nor do I hear any discussion of the Africans who sold slaves to others in the first place. Why is this all important? It’s important because it exposes our biases, and rosy view of the world. Slavery was not an American thing, but a human thing, practically a global thing. And the evidence more than suggest that America would have peacefully abolished slavery must like the rest of the world. The same principles which informed William Wilberforce’s fight in England to end slavery were the same principles deeply routed in America. Our understanding of the south, the civil war, and the idol that is Lincoln must be critically questioned. Start with reading Up From Slavery.

      • Kevin Levin Aug 25, 2017

        But when one speaks of the good a slave owner may have done for a slave, such things aren’t even entertained.

        Yes, please feel free to describe all the “good” that comes in a relationship where one person legally owns another.

        • Sandi Saunders Aug 25, 2017

          Mr. Levin, may I have a least one point for my restraint? The struggle is real…

  • woodrowfan Aug 20, 2017

    Here is an interesting graphic commentary on monuments and historic memory, in this case in France.

    http://sarahglidden.com/monuments/

    • Carroll Aldridge Aug 21, 2017

      I like this graphic.. Thanks. To me history never changes, just our perception of it. When the sun sets the day is done. However it is we who revisit it, reinterpret it, try to examine & explain over & over. At the same time, historiography advances, (hopefully), fashions, fads come & go, political whims rise & fall, individual prejudices take their toll.

      KKK membership has never been lower in this nation. Neo-Nazis are not a sufficient force. However 24/7 News coverage & certain politicos on the make cram the headlines. C-Ville was a fluke. If the police & Va. State Troopers were not caught off guard, or not told to stand down probably the C-Ville massacre would have never happened. Like if that one little sick boy, Dylan, had not entered that Charleston Church. All those little “ifs” of history.

      The monuments are markers from the past. I haven’t forgotten but it will not dictate my future. I suspect few if any Americans give them much thought unless pressed by the Press, the Politicians or when a far-right group attempts to hi-jack them for their own purposes. I am dismayed that so few academicians defend the statues but I realize that most are in collegiate environs which has it’s owe brand of politico maneuvers.

      America stumbles forth.

      • Sandi Saunders Aug 21, 2017

        I don’t think anyone does the Confederacy, the South or themselves any credit by pretending but for PC rules everyone would revere and appreciate confederate iconography that outnumbers all others in our nation.

        This Southerner with confederate ancestors has managed to learn about, appreciate, value and understand them without supporting the iconography of rebellion, treason and tearing this nation apart with racially charged shrines. And there is nothing PC about it.

      • MSB Aug 21, 2017

        I would not call the murder of Heather Heyer or 9 members of the Mother Emanuel prayer group “flukes”. I would call them examples of white domestic terrorism. And they are not rare.

  • Rob Baker Aug 21, 2017

    Hey Kevin,,

    In your article you say,
    Regardless of their destination, the monuments were exactly where the needed to be as determined by the community members themselves.

    Like you, recent events dramatically impacted my view of Confederate monuments. As someone born in raise in GA, and currently living and teaching in GA, I grapple with the next step. I’m a proponent of communities being in charge of their commemorative landscape, but I readily admit that not all communities will see removal or even contextualization, as an option. How do we as educators , historians, or simply taxpayers approach such a situation? I hate to think of a situation where state/federal governments dictate to local communities what they can and cannot do with memorials, statues, and historic homes.

  • Keith Bohannon Aug 21, 2017

    Thanks for posting your piece from The Atlantic. Do you think Confederate monuments on battlefields, including those marking troop positions and where generals fell, should be removed along with those in cities and towns?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2017

      Hi Keith,

      I honestly don’t know. What I do believe is that some of the Confederate monuments on national battlefields raise some of the same questions that have generated discussions in local communities. That said, I am sensitive to the fact that the Gettysburg battlefield is not downtown Richmond or Charlottesville.

  • John Passifano Aug 21, 2017

    People have already begun to defend the fact that 12 US Presidents owned slaves (26 %) with this “false analogy” argument but I don’t see it. Removing statues or erecting them is the “will of the people”, is it not? It’s not as if these men died and there magically appeared monuments to their heroic deeds as if they were interpreted by Providence himself. Robert E Lee was a sacred cow, protected , adored to such a point, that presentism never seemed to be a threat. This changed. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – and unfortunately, that includes ‘memory’. First we will see the Virginian slave owning presidents receive asterics. It’ll be some half ass attempt to appease both sides until there manifests a will to do something about it. Than the national historical syllabus will divide into a “pre” and “post” where Americans will be divided by enlightenment. If you think about it long enough it makes sense. Like geometry, do we educate Euclidean with proofs, Euclidean with textbooks or just another form of it all together? If gold no longer backs the currency but you discover there was never any there at Fort Knox to begin with… what do you do?

    • Sandi Saunders Aug 22, 2017

      Well, claiming they went up via the “will of the people” would have a bit more validity if those people and that will had included women and free, or newly freed black people but we already know those were not demographics with any power or voice. Also most of these monuments were the result of the rich being able to afford them and donate or heavily sponsor them. The South worships Lee as a God (and it is futile to deny it) but these monuments were propaganda as much as memorials.

  • Greg Sargeant Aug 21, 2017

    I do not want to discount the stake that African-Americans have in this issue, but I would like to point out that many of these monuments are an affront to the descendants of Union veterans as well. In particular the Wirz monument in Andersonville. My great-great grandfather was a survivor of Andersonville prison. I heard stories about his ordeal second hand from my grandfather while I was growing up. His brother died at the camp. In the 1900s, many states were erecting monuments to their dead at the Andersonville site. The Daughters of the Confederacy saw fit to build a monument to the commandant of the camp, Major Henry Wirz, who had been executed for war crimes because of his treatment of prisoners. The monument characterized Wirz as a martyr for the Confederate cause who was framed by the vengeful Union. This was a direct insult to the survivors, who knew the truth. My ancestor in particular signed a petition against the monument and was claimed that the Wirz deserved everything he got. Southerners in Andersonville seem to take perverse pride in honoring the memory of Major Wirz, as can be seen by recent photos of re-enactors participating in ceremonies at his memorial. This is one of the more blatant examples of what is wrong with these monuments. They are not monuments commemorating a lost cause. They celebrate the failure of Reconstruction and the resurgence of the Confederate ideals of white supremacy and rebellion against the authority of the Federal government. In the present day, Confederate apologist perpetuate the lies that they need to tell themselves (but do not necessarily believe) that enable them to celebrate the fabricated history of the “Lost Cause”. Memorials to the dead are one thing, but the veneration of Confederate icons needs to end. The Wirz monument should be the next to go.

    • Sandi Saunders Aug 22, 2017

      Greg Sargeant, excellent point! I agree.

    • Rob Aug 22, 2017

      You definitely bring up some good points about the Union veterans. I would only add that the monuments helped create and perpetuate a mythical history of the war and southern honor. It was an effective campaign that seems to be unraveling more and more. Even most monuments to the dead (i.e. Ft. Sanders Monument in Knoxville) carry this stigma.

  • Forester Aug 28, 2017

    I was out in the country when the attack happened, so I missed the whole first week of the controversies. Also, I’ve been busy with my medical classes and getting my siblings enrolled in college. My silence hasn’t been because I support the violence or anything, God forbid.

    I wonder why Jimmy Carter has been silent? I worry about his health after collapsing in July. I wish he would speak out and condemn the violence, but I assume his health is too bad.

    My opinion about monuments is evolving. In my city, the mayor wants to move the monument to the cemetery and I think that’s a good enough compromise. I never went to the city council meeting and I abandoned my plan to suggest re-captioning the monuments as a solution.

    Charlottesville has changed the whole game, and older solutions just don’t apply anymore.

  • S Hogg Aug 28, 2017

    I’m not from the USA, but the discussion is of interest more widely on how we do or don’t memorialise the confronting aspects of a countries history – whether it be about race, settlement, or totalitarianism (as for the Czechs). It occurred to me: how often are union soldiers/army/generals/ and etc memoralised.

    Confederate states Union statues Notes
    South Carolina 0
    Mississippi 4 All at the Vicksburg national monument
    Florida 12 Various – mainly at cemeteries and at veteran’s parks
    Alabama 0
    Georgia 0
    Louisiana 1 Gen. Grant
    Texas 1 Treue der Union Monument: monument erected by local German community after massacre of German settlers by confederates in 1962.
    Virginia 4 Including memorials at Arlington national cemetery, West point cemetery and Lincoln cemetery, plus one to a fictitious battle
    Arkansas 4 Various and at different places
    Tennessee 0
    North Carolina 0

    Based on wikipedia list (unverified) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Union_Civil_War_monuments_and_memorials so this cannot be considered by any means definitive. I saw in some articles (again unverified) that there are over 700 memorials to the confederate soldiers and generals. This seems a quite disproportionate (even when you start adding in the large number of union monuments in the states that were never in the confederacy).

  • S Hogg Aug 28, 2017

    That should be 1862, not 1962

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