Jun 7, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Confederate monuments become flashpoints in protests against racism

Protests at a Confederate statue.
People gather around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, after Gov. Ralph Northam announced plans to remove the statue. Photo: Ryan M. Kelly/AFP via Getty Images

Protests against police violence and racism have sharpened the focus of a long-standing debate about the place for and relevance of Confederate-era monuments and iconography.

What's happening: In some cities, monuments have become a hub for demonstrations, while others have been vandalized or toppled by protesters. In some instances, government officials have ordered them to be removed altogether.

  • Protesters in Richmond on Sunday pulled down a statue of Williams Carter Wickham, a Confederate general during the Civil War.
  • Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Thursday the state will remove the memorial for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Richmond's historic Monument Avenue.
  • Officials in Alexandria, Virginia, removed a statue of a Confederate soldier named "Appomattox" on Tuesday.
  • City officials in Mobile, Alabama, removed the statue of Confederate Adm. Raphael Semmes from the downtown area Friday, Mayor Sandy Stimpson tweeted.
  • Officials at Nicholls State University in Louisiana are changing the names of two college buildings dedicated to Confederate generals.
  • The U.S. Marines issued a directive on Friday ordering the removal of all public displays of the Confederate flag, including from bumper stickers, posters, mugs, posters and clothing.
  • Law enforcement in Montgomery, Alabama, charged four people with criminal mischief for tearing down another statue of Lee that stood in front of Lee High School on Monday. A judge on Thursday dropped the case.

Why it matters: Civil rights advocates say the Confederate monuments pay deference to America's legacy of slavery and racism and want them removed. Others say the statues represent Southern history and heritage.

  • Context: The debate has resurfaced in recent years during flashpoints for race relations spurred by acts of racism-fueled violence — such as in the wake of the shooting at a Charleston church in 2015, and after a white supremacist killed a woman when he drove a car through a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.

Between the lines: The Southern Poverty Law Center conducted a comprehensive analysis of 1,747 publicly sponsored symbols — including monuments, statues, flags, holidays, and the names of schools, highways and other locations — honoring the Confederacy.

  • SPLC found two primary periods where the dedication of these symbols spiked — during the first 20 years of the 20th century, coinciding with the enactment of Jim Crow laws, and during the Civil Rights Movement. Both were periods of extreme racial tension.
  • Zoom in: According to a registration form to add Richmond's Robert E. Lee statue to the National Park Service’s registry of historic places, the monument was erected in 1887 to commemorate the general and “herald the emergence of a New South from the adversity of defeat and reconstruction.”
  • "Instead of choosing to heal the wounds of the American Civil War, they chose to keep them on display," Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said at a press conference announcing the statue's removal Thursday. "They launched a new campaign to undo the results of the Civil War by other means. They needed a symbol to shore up the cause. And it’s quite a symbol."

Yes, but: Harriet Senie, an art historian at the City College of New York specializing in public memorials, told NPR she favors a slower process for removing the statues, in addition to systemic changes.

  • "I think it's important that we own our history," Senie said. "We can take down all the Confederate monuments in this country, but that will not end racism if we can't learn from them."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to add more context to Senie's position on Confederate monuments.

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