The Real Story Behind All Those Confederate Statues

Vox points me today to some data I was looking for last night. Thanks, Vox! It’s from the Southern Poverty Law Center, and it shows us when all those Confederate monuments and statues were erected:

This illustrates something that even a lot of liberals don’t always get. Most of these monuments were not erected right after the Civil War. In fact, all the way to 1890 there were very few statues or monuments dedicated to Confederate leaders. Most of them were built much later. And since I’m not an academic, I feel comfortable squeezing this history into a very short, oversimplified summary:

1861-1865: Civil War.

1865-1875: Reconstruction Era.

1875-1895: Reconstruction Era ends. Lynchings skyrocket. Blacks are steadily disenfranchised, allowing Southern whites to enact Jim Crow laws. In 1896, Jim Crow is cemented into place when the Supreme Court rules it constitutional.

1895-1915: With blacks disenfranchised and Jim Crow laws safely in place, Southern whites continue their campaign of terror against blacks. This era features continued lynchings, the growing popularity of “Lost Cause” revisionist histories, a resurgence of white supremacy organizations like the KKK, and the erection of Confederate statues and monuments in large numbers.

1915-1955: Jim Crow reigns safely throughout the South.

1955-1970: The civil rights era starts after the Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education that Jim Crow laws are unconstitutional. Southern whites mount massive and violent resistance, and start putting up Confederate monuments again.

Yes, these monuments were put up to honor Confederate leaders and soldiers. But the timing of the monument building makes it pretty clear what the real motivation was: to physically symbolize white terror against blacks. They were mostly built during times when Southern whites were engaged in vicious campaigns of subjugation against blacks, and during those campaigns the message sent by a statue of Robert E. Lee in front of a courthouse was loud and clear.

No one should think that these statues were meant to be somber postbellum reminders of a brutal war. They were built much later, and most of them were explicitly created to accompany organized and violent efforts to subdue blacks and maintain white supremacy in the South. I wouldn’t be surprised if even a lot of Southerners don’t really understand this, but they should learn. There’s a reason blacks consider these statues to be symbols of bigotry and terror. It’s because they are.

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Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

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