SPLC Catalogs Confederate Iconography

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.

Confederate Monument Timeline

To go along with this report and chart I highly recommend watching John Coski’s recent presentation at the American Civil War Museum on Richmond’s Confederate monuments. John makes a number of points that are worth considering as you think about this particular chart and the current debate.

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.

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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28 comments… add one
  • Forester Apr 27, 2016 @ 12:39

    I’m not sure if removing monuments aids the anti-racist cause or not. Scrub away reminders of white supremacy and it becomes easier to claim it never existed in the first place.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 27, 2016 @ 12:54

      Not sure I follow. Could you not claim that racism exists before the monuments went up?

  • Patrick Jennings Apr 26, 2016 @ 9:41

    Kevin, Paul and Bryan…all great points. In no way do I advocate separating race from the debate – I am simply pointing out the obvious that it is not the sole factor for the existence of these monuments. Put simply, history is not a destination, it is a process. I apply this same rigor to the artificial aspects of the “heritage not hate” argument put up by many flaggers. They are not being historical, the basis for their displays on public land are rooted in the nearly contemporary, and their logic flawed. Here in my town of Alexandria I applaud the decision to no longer fly Confederate flags on certain dates, but fight hammer-and-tong the effort to remove the rebel monument.

    If we do not view these action through the lens of dispassionate history, we will forever be chasing our tails in a never-ending race to catch a societal norm that changes too swiftly to capture the absolutely comical notion that “we have it right.”

    • Kevin Levin Apr 26, 2016 @ 9:47

      They are not being historical, the basis for their displays on public land are rooted in the nearly contemporary, and their logic flawed. Here in my town of Alexandria I applaud the decision to no longer fly Confederate flags on certain dates, but fight hammer-and-tong the effort to remove the rebel monument.

      I think the disconnect here is that you believe that this matter is primarily about history. My guess is that for most people who are calling for removal, etc. is that this is about the politics of race. For many people, there is no difference between Confederate flags and monuments. Both have functioned as the public face of communities that deprived Americans of their civil rights.

      Please understand that I am not sharing this as a personal argument one way or the other. I am simply pointing out what I have heard over the past few months.

  • Paul Taylor Apr 25, 2016 @ 10:25

    IMHO, it does not seem to matter today why those monuments went up 100+ years ago. Long disenfranchised local communities now realize there is political and social power in their corner. By ignoring historical nuance and viewing the debate solely through the lens of contemporary racial politics, or so it often seems, this issue gives local communities, governments, and agencies (perhaps like the SPLC) the opportunity to flex some political muscle and, perhaps, deliver a return finger in the eye to those who silenced them for so long. Their voices will be heard and respected, and rightfully so. Is the desire by some communities to take down Confederate iconography an act of long-overdue social justice or simply political revenge? Is there a functional difference? I guess the answer depends on whose ox is being gored.

  • Patrick Jennings Apr 25, 2016 @ 7:55

    Of course it does, unless one decides to be willfully ignorant of the total past. This report, and some of the comments are forcing a direct causation between Jim Crow and erecting these monuments and handing out these names while ignoring entire slices of local, regional, national and social history.

    In no way did I deny the presence of racism, and I readily admit it is a stain and heavy hand on the heart of America, but this report is deeply flawed in making racism the ONLY reason for these monuments and namings. Indeed, a cursory check of GAR records indicates that the majority of their local monuments went up at roughly the same time…were these in response to the south, an effort to mark the passing of a unique generation, or further symbols of racism because they represented white units?

    I will say it again, correlation does not imply causation.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 25, 2016 @ 9:22

      This report, and some of the comments are forcing a direct causation between Jim Crow and erecting these monuments and handing out these names while ignoring entire slices of local, regional, national and social history.

      You are absolutely correct that this report runs rough shod over a great deal of history, but it also reinforces a fundamental point and that is that these monuments reflect the triumph of white supremacy at the turn of the twentieth century.

    • Bryan Cheeseboro Apr 25, 2016 @ 11:02

      I don’t think this report makes racism the only reason for the great number of monuments erected between 1900 and 1910. But on the other hand, we’re talking about a time period so deeply ingrained in a racial apartheid that race cannot be separated from so much of what happened.

      As you did, when I saw the spike on the line of the number of monuments going up in that period, I also thought about nearly 50 years after the war and the veterans being immortalized. I think that definitely has a hand in this. But you could also look at the fact that it took 30 years after the war for segregation to become the law of the land. Why did it take so long? The question is my point here. And the same with the “Private Ryan”/WWII vets example. So I think the answer is often in everything else that was going on during these time periods as to why a monument goes up when it does or segregation becomes the law when it does too. I think figuring that all out is what being a historian is really all about. Hope this makes sense.

  • Patrick Jennings Apr 25, 2016 @ 7:25

    Do I really have to be the first to note the obvious? has everyone really missed the time line here? Are historians so obsessed with swinging the cudgel of contemporary (and I might add temporary) moral righteousness that they can not see the forest for the trees.

    What was happening from 1901 to 1910? Did Americans really ONLY live in a binary world of black and white? Was there not a “great reconciliation” brought on by the Spanish American War? Something that might, just might spur on the building of monuments? How many years was it from 1865 to 1910? Need I do the math? Forty-five for us historians who hate numbers. Now, add to that the average age of a Civil War veteran…25 years…and you get, come on you can do it…70 years! Now, what was the average life expectancy from 1900 to 1910? It was about 50 years old.

    Flash forward to modern times. When did we start building monuments to our “Greatest Generation?” I think you might be on to it now…about 45 to 50 years after WWII ended! Why did we start building those monuments…because the veterans were dying away at a rapid rate.

    As the great shrink once noted, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” This study clearly has a desire to see only one thing, racism. The simple truth is, if that is what you are looking for then that is all you will see. The end product is, this study is a deeply flawed presentation of two dissimilar time lines and shows the greatest failure of most historians educated in the last 25 years…that correlation does not imply causation.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 25, 2016 @ 7:33

      What was happening from 1901 to 1910? Did Americans really ONLY live in a binary world of black and white?

      Yes, legally speaking they did live in a “binary world of black and white.” Isn’t this the period of Jim Crow? The vast majority of black Americans were disfranchised and therefore prevented from entering the discussions about how local communities commemorate the past. Nothing that you have said here challenges this point.

  • Robert Moore Apr 23, 2016 @ 7:09


    Not to be misunderstood… yes, I do prefer the bottom-up approach, but that’s not to say that, when doing so, I completely ignore examinations of history from the top down. The problem I have is those who tend to argue solely from the top-down perspective. I see it creating generalizations and stereotypes which might not be an accurate reflection of a community and/or what’s actually going on at the community level. Whether they really don’t understand, or simply don’t care to understand, that is what I see happening with the SPLC report.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 23, 2016 @ 7:18

      Hi Robert,

      Great to hear from you and thanks for the clarification. I agree with you that this report is agenda driven and I wish the SPLC was more explicit as to whether they are advocating for the removal of those monuments, etc. that are included on this list. One of the other commenters inquired into this question, which I tweeted to the SPLC, but have not seen a response. At the same time I also believe that the report does serve to highlight a few salient points about the politics of race that we can see at work in the graphs and charts.

      By the way, I do hope you are enjoying the GMU program. I need to do a better job of following your other blog.

      • Kevin Levin Apr 23, 2016 @ 7:20

        Just noticed this response from SPLC:

      • Robert Moore Apr 23, 2016 @ 7:29

        While they don’t say so (monument removal), explicitly, and they “advocate” discussion, I’m reading the rhetoric of the report as not so much interested in a discussion that falls outside the parameters they set in the history that they used in the report. Even though they say that it’s up to localities to make the decisions, I think, at the core, they wouldn’t mind so much if monuments were removed.

        Regarding the PhD program, I’m hoping to have a post up… hopefully in May… which discusses my take on Augmented Reality (AR) platforms and interpretation of monuments. If discussion, centered on Confederate symbols (or even symbolic items that conjure “memories” of slavery) is really of interest, I don’t think interpreting monuments with new interpretive markers is the way to go about doing so. I think I see a way in which AR actually facilitates genuine discussions. Of course, removing the monuments before this happens significantly impacts the possibilities behind the AR situation.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 23, 2016 @ 7:40

          …I’m reading the rhetoric of the report as not so much interested in a discussion that falls outside the parameters they set in the history that they used in the report.

          I think you are probably right about that given their broader mission. As for me, this report has to be considered as part of a broader discussion extending back to the establishment of the monuments themselves that has always been about more than history.

          Wow! Definitely looking forward to that post. Good luck.

  • Rob Baker Apr 23, 2016 @ 3:09

    I just realized they missed a monument in my hometown – I feel left out.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 23, 2016 @ 3:17

      The report includes the UDC monument in Boston Harbor, but I wonder if it should include the Union monument on Cape Cod, whose funding was organized by a Confederate veteran. 🙂

      • Rob Baker Apr 23, 2016 @ 11:22

        I noticed the included a few roads in northwest Georgia named after Confederate figures that are included in this report – but those roads are connected to the Chickamauga Battlefield. There are a few other examples of Confederate iconography in the report that I’ve got some of the issues with that Robert has.

  • bob carey Apr 22, 2016 @ 9:12

    I noticed a big spike in the courthouse monuments at the beginning of the “Jim Crow” era. Probably to remind southern blacks who was back in charge,as if they needed to be reminded.

  • Craig Swain Apr 22, 2016 @ 8:49

    I’d submit to get the full value of this data, we’d need to also see the corresponding number of monuments on northern courthouse lawns (maybe even western areas which were populated after the war too), number of schools named for Federal figures (Abraham Lincoln may require a separate category), and likewise under the “other” category. Not so much to develop some “north vs. south” argument, but to demonstrate the broader context. Do the ups and downs match with national trends? Or contradict national trends? Are there external factors (besides just southerners and their embrace of Confederate iconography) that play in?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 22, 2016 @ 8:54

      Hi Craig,

      This is a great point. The report draws a very close relationship between the flurry of monuments raised at the turn of the twentieth century and the racial dynamics of Jim Crow. I don’t deny any of this, but it also needs to be remembered that this is roughly the point when Southern states once again have the financial resources to engage in these projects.

      • Craig Swain Apr 22, 2016 @ 11:05

        Financial resources, yes that is one factor I think would come into play.

        Might also need to reach across disciplines to look for some patterns, sociologically speaking. I think it is no coincidence, for instance, the National World War II memorial found traction 40 to 50 years from the start of World War II. So maybe there are some generational behavioral patterns that produces the 1900-1910 spike.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 22, 2016 @ 11:13

          I agree, but what cannot be lost sight of in the end is the fact that in many of these communities the vast majority of African Americans were disfranchised, which had a direct impact on the commemorative landscape related to the Confederacy and the Civil War.

  • Forester Apr 22, 2016 @ 8:31

    What exactly is SPLC advocating here? Do they want all monuments removed? That’s what I got from the article. Seems extreme and unlikely to happen.

    And not all monuments are equal. One reason I support the Portsmouth monument is because it was built in 1877, when the actual veterans and widows were still alive and even relatively young. Norfolk’s monument … I don’t know. It was built in 1907 and is a lot more controversial.

    Also, just because something was built in the 1960s doesn’t necessarily mean it was an F-U to black people. Does the SPLC study account for monuments built or dedicated in honor of the Centennial? I’m not trying to debate, I just have questions.

  • Rob Baker Apr 22, 2016 @ 8:30

    A friend of mine who works for the SPLC sent this to me yesterday. The graphics, charts, maps are outstanding.

  • Ken Noe Apr 22, 2016 @ 6:41

    I was on a panel with SPLC’s Lecia Brooks just last weekend. She made the point that this list does not include battlefield monuments, roadside markers, cemetery structures, museums, and the like, anything they deemed largely historical. That’s in the report too, but I thought it was worth highlighting that SPLC has no interest in removing such monuments.

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