What the Confederacy Actually Represents Today
Several weeks ago, there was a story on a local news station about the removal of a statue of a Confederate soldier from an area park.
Unsurprisingly, the usual argument commenced.
On one side, people argued that the statue represents history and that removing it was an attempt to erase it. “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it,” they said. In their opinion, the removal of Confederate statues was a prime example of “cancel culture”.
On the other side, some pointed out that the statue was commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the early 1930s and placed in a historically black neighborhood next to the spot where a “whites only” water fountain once stood. They argued that statues and monuments are built to memorialize people of importance that are held in high esteem for their accomplishments, not as a teaching tool.
Aside from the learning/glorifying dichotomy, though, the central arguments in this perpetual debate are concerned with whether the Confederacy was more concerned with states’ rights or slavery and which modern day political party was responsible for the establishment of the KKK and racist ideology.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to divide those two points into separate posts that I’ll link to one another.
First, let’s look at the ideology of the Confederacy.
After Dylan Roof, who had been radicalized online by the white supremacist ideology of the Council of Conservative Citizens and was frequently pictured with the Confederate flag, shot and killed nine black churchgoers in 2015 and following the violent events at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 (which was inspired by the conversation surrounding a Confederate statue there), many cities and states around the country began to have tough conversations about what the Confederacy and all of its imagery represents and consider its removal from the public sphere.
The arguments of today’s Confederate sympathizers can be summarized with a single concept: the so-called “Lost Cause”. Following their loss in the Civil War, Southerners attempted to reframe the Confederacy and its central values in a way that was more noble and palatable to a post-Reconstruction America.
Rather than focusing on the associations with their attempted perpetuation of slavery, they chose to put forward the narrative that the Confederate army was chiefly concerned with secession from a tyrannical U.S. government on the basis of states’ rights. In some cases, proponents went so far as to argue that slaves had a better existence in the United States than they did in Africa and were happy to serve their masters.
The aforementioned United Daughters of the Confederacy, who was responsible for the vast majority of the statues memorializing the Confederacy throughout the South, quickly became some of the biggest and most pervasive advocates of the Lost Cause agenda during the 20th century, reaching over 100,000 members at the time of the first World War.
During the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras, the UDC was instrumental in ensuring that the Lost Cause version of history was printed in school textbooks across the South. The North Carolina Division of the group was also responsible for placing portraits of Confederate soldiers and the Confederate flag in public schools in the 1930s and holding essay contests on the origins of the KKK and secession.
The group’s three male counterpart organizations also joined forces during the first part of the 1900s to advocate for the publication of the Lost Cause teachings in school textbooks.
Eventually state textbook commissions were partnering with these groups to select textbooks for their public schools with some members even serving on the committees themselves, and national publishers were either forced to produce books that exclusively included the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War or to publish one version for the South with that ideology and one for the rest of the United States with the standard history.
In his book “Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong and Teaching What Really Happened”, James W. Loewen wrote: “the Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about.”
That, in essence, is where the answer to the questions surrounding the Confederacy lies: facing a country in which the majority of its citizens and the prevailing side of the Civil War did not support slavery, the Confederates were forced to reimagine their plight, both for that time and for years to come, in order to perpetuate it.
It’s clear that the early proponents of the Lost Cause were largely successful — it still offers a convenient, albeit erroneous, defense for those seeking to continue their mission.
Today’s defenders of Confederate imagery and statues reflect that strange, contradictory amalgamation of Southern heritage and pride and the assertion that it isn’t a representation of racism despite its use by white supremacist groups across the country and throughout history.
Now, on to part II — an exploration of the history of racism in our modern political parties.