Demonstrators march, statues fall as US grapples with racist past

Anger over the death of George Floyd has led to a reappraisal of the history of racism and oppression in America. In recent weeks, demonstrators have toppled Confederate statues, Congressional leaders have proposed renaming military bases and NASCAR has banned Confederate flags from being displayed at events. We asked UNI associate history professor Thomas Connors, an expert on historical memory and monuments, to weigh in on the discussion. 

How do you feel the demonstrations happening now have reignited debates regarding Confederate displays? 

They’ve shown that a lot of the population considers them symbols of racism and repression. When you lose a war, normally you don't get a monument. If you get a statue that means your cause eventually won and that you’re considered a hero who fought for that admirable cause. Confederates and those who later commemorated them supported white supremacy. They first hoped to keep African Americans in slavery, while those who later admired “the Lost Cause” created a system of Jim Crow segregation that kept African Americans in a lower status. 

I think there's a difference between when monuments are in a historic place and when they're in the public square. Most of the monuments that have been pulled down or removed are in public places. They really have not attacked statues on battlefields, like Gettysburg or Antietam. If you’re on a battlefield looking to learn about history, then you can put up a plaque that says this monument is from the Jim Crow period and it represents something we no longer honor. The statues in traffic circles along Monument Avenue in downtown Richmond, Virginia are very different. You can't read about historical context when you’re driving by at 40 miles an hour. 

Removing monuments isn’t erasing history. It’s just moving them from places of honor. The same thing happened after World War II in Germany. Anything that represented the Nazi regime was removed: statues, swastikas, buildings, and emblems, but we did eventually preserve the concentration camps. Those don’t celebrate Nazism, but show us what it was and what we need to remember about it. 

Why is the Confederate flag so controversial? Why does it matter if these old relics of the past remain in public spaces?

The problem with that Confederate flag is that it’s been used to promote white supremacy since the early 20th century.  It’s part of the first blockbuster film, Birth of a Nation (1915), which celebrates the original Ku Klux Klan. The rebooted Klan of the 1920s also embraced the flag, as have other white nationalists and supremacists. It started getting flown over state capitals and included as part of Southern state flags during the Civil Rights Movement as a way of resisting desegregation. Today, 75% of African Americans in the American South see the Confederate flag as a racist symbol. 

During the height of the Jim Crow period, roughly 1890-1940, Confederate monuments were put up in parks and courthouse squares across the South. I think it helps when I put it like this: if you have a statue of Adolf Hitler in front of the courthouse in Munich and that statue comes down, then Jewish people are going to feel more comfortable entering that building if they don't have to walk by his image and they see that the community no longer thinks he belongs on a pedestal. 

Do you think that this current movement will help lead to widespread and permanent change?

Well, we seem to be having this debate every couple years. Some incident happens, like in Charleston or Charlottesville, and then you get a wave of these statues and monuments being taken down. It’s a tribute to how many were erected that there are still plenty around!  

We haven't really had a continuous focus on civil rights. If you look at the history of African Americans gaining civil rights, you know, there's 12 years after the Civil War called Reconstruction from 1865 until 1877. That’s followed by decades of segregation. Then there's another period in the 1950s and 1960s that we think of as the Civil Rights movement, where African Americans gained some vital civil rights. In the last 50 years, there's been some progress, but there has not much building on the momentum of the civil rights movement itself. I think it comes and goes, we’ve never seen continuous progress, only brief periods. The next election will almost certainly determine the direction we’ll go in for now. 

What are some historical parallels that you have seen in other countries in comparison to what is happening here?

What’s happening right now with Confederate monuments has happened all over the world throughout history. When the colonies broke away from England and declared independence, they did the same thing. There were only about two statues in the colonies at the time, but one of them was of King George III. After they heard the Declaration of Independence, they pulled it down and melted it into bullets. Every royal coat of arms in courthouses and even on pub signs were torn down and burned. That’s what happens when times change - that’s updating the landscape. 

There’s a real parallel with what has happened in South Africa. The white South Africans, the colonists, in a sense, are seeing their heritage being taken down as well. Recently a statue of the man considered the father of Apartheid collapsed and was destroyed. Just about everyone was pleased because it saved them the trouble and expense of tearing it down. Nobody wants to keep these monuments up because they represent a system that has been discredited and nobody admires anymore. Statues of white supremacists there are replaced with those of people like Nelson Mandela. White South Africans feel like their history is being replaced, but their history was, you know, not something you can really feel proud of, without celebrating the racism that underlies it.