Why are the United States’ confederate statues so controversial?

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As cities around the US take down the symbols of racism and oppression, we spoke to a historian to find out more.

(Chris Howell/AP)

The United States endured some of the most turbulent days in its recent history following the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday.

In violent protests against the removal of the Robert E Lee statue, a confederate general and slave-owner, neo-Nazis and white nationalists wielded confederate and Nazi flags, with one man ploughing into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

A vigil for paralegal Heather Heyer, killed after a car drove into protesters in Charlottesville (Curtis Compton/AP)

But there continues to be uproar from white supremacists, and broader reaches of American society, who believe that statues of confederate figures, such as Lee and Stonewall Jackson, should remain in place – sentiments which were echoed by Donald Trump.


Why do they exist in the first place, and what do they represent?

Unlike war memorials or war graves, confederate statues were not erected as monuments of remembrance, explained Dr Adam Smith, Senior Lecturer in History at UCL.

They were built between the 1890s and the 1920s – decades after the Civil War ended in 1865 – as a means for white Southerners to assert their perceived supremacy over African Americans, in the era of segregation and the birth of the Jim Crow laws.

The statues reinforced the oppressive beliefs and practices of the Confederacy, a group of 11 slave-holding, southern states, which broke off from the rest of the country following the election of abolitionist president Abraham Lincoln, in 1860.


“They weren’t monuments put up by a grieving generation who had just fought a horrific, four-year struggle,” said Smith.

“That tells us that confederate symbols were embraced at a particular moment in American history, when the white South felt the need to reassert its dominance over black people. That fits in with the next wave of embracing of confederate symbols which was in the late 1950s and 1960s,” Smith said.

The statue of Confederate Army of Northern Virginia General Robert E Lee stands in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia (Cliff Owen/AP)
A state flag of Mississippi, featuring the confederate flag in the top left-hand corner (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

The events in Charlottesville were a demonstration of the extremist elements of American society that now feel emboldened following the election of Trump, Smith said.

But the belief that white people are victims ignores the structural reality of racism in the US, he added.

Unlike post-war Germany, which made efforts to renounce Nazism (Nazi symbols are banned in the country), the US is still grappling with its deeply racist past, despite it being more multi-racial and multi-ethnic than other nations.

Members of the KKK escorted by police past a large group of protesters during a KKK rally in Charlottesville (Steve Helber/AP)

“The United States has never as a nation come to terms with the meaning of slavery and the Civil War, and that is a fundamental problem. (In contrast) the history of post-war Germany has been an exercise in the national repudiation of Nazism.

“The Civil War happened because the white South wanted to defend slavery against what they viewed as the northern free states, who had just elected Abraham Lincoln and weren’t sympathetic to the idea that human beings could be bought and sold as property.”

Those arguing for the removal of the statues are seeking to remove these symbols of oppression.

What should be done with the statues?

There are those who argue that they should remain as a reminder of history, however unpleasant. Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Fox News on Monday that their removal risked “sanitising” history.

While Smith believes that the statues should be removed, he added that “there isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution”.

The removal of these statues is also about knocking down the symbols of the Confederacy from their pedestals.

“It’s the very fact of the plinth – you have to somehow take these people – literally or metaphorically – off their plinths, because it’s the elevation of them that is the crucial thing,” explained Smith.

Instead, the statues could be preserved alongside those of politicians who sought the constitutional equality of African Americans following the Civil War, the historian suggested.

Can the US ever reconcile with its racist history, now that the Trump era has resurrected fringe, extremist elements of society?

President Donald Trump pauses as he speaks about the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville (Evan Vucci/AP)

The historian predicted that the accelerated efforts of cities to remove confederate symbols, including Baltimore and New York, would lead to more deaths at the hands of far-right extremists.

“Even if there is a post-Trump world, the damage that has been done and the elements of American society that have been emboldened, as well as the damage that’s been done to the civic culture and to the norms of political behaviour, is so severe.

“It’s really difficult to imagine how the US can return to whatever you think of as a pre-Trump norm,” he added.

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