Jim Crow Statues

These days, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the day-to-day pronouncements of our strange President. It has only been a week since Trump’s aggressive talk of war with North Korea had the entire world on alert. But Friday’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia shifted America’s attention to another threat to our nation that many of us hoped was close to becoming extinct. Neo Nazis and fanatic White Power nationalists have become newly emboldened by the language of Republican Candidate and now President Donald Trump.

The excuse these sociopaths used for the violence and tragic loss of life they brought to Charlottesville was that they were defending a historic monument to the Confederacy’s General Robert E. Lee. This is a bogus claim in so many ways. For example, these violent, misguided fools were marching through the streets chanting “Jews will not replace us.” – It’s not clear to me what that chant has to do with Civil War history.

But I don’t want to get into an analysis of what motivates these hate groups. In the past few days, thousands of words have been written about all of that. I just want to touch on an aspect of this Civil War monuments issue that, from what I’ve seen, hasn’t received much mention at all. In fact, I feel it’s the most basic reason to remove such statues. Really the only reason anyone needs. The existence of these statues in public spaces is a constant and painful insult to millions of American citizens. And it has been for over 100 years.

Some right wing apologists have tried to claim that these monuments are a part of our national history that should be preserved. To them I say, “take a photo of each statue and put it in a history book under the caption ‘Jim Crow propaganda.'” You see, contrary to what you might imagine, those tributes to the past weren’t put up in southern cities and towns immediately after they lost their battle to keep slavery alive. The victorious Union forces would have forbidden such a glorification of that evil cause. No, the southern states didn’t begin putting up most of these statues and monuments until the early 1900’s.

The first 12 years after the Civil War ended in 1865 was the “Reconstruction” period. It was driven by Congressional amendments to our Constitution that freed and enfranchised (at least the males) the South’s formerly enslaved Americans. Leaders in the Union hoped to gradually change southern society into a place where Blacks and Whites could eventually live together as equals.

Interestingly, back then it was Lincoln’s Republican majority that favored civil rights for every American while the Democrats fought to return the South to its racist status quo. (History is full of ironies.)

Without getting into a long digression about the politics of the day, I’ll just say that the Democrats regained control of the U.S. House in the 1870’s and were able to cancel the plans for reconstruction and reconciliation envisioned by the martyred President Lincoln. In 1877, all Union Army troops were removed from the South and Reconstruction ended. For the next 25 years, the southern states struggled with their own version of reconstruction. Slowly they rebuilt the old societal arrangement, with White’s once again completely dominating the Black former slaves among them. Jim Crow Laws appeared in the 1890’s to codify such inequality. Lynchings, the KKK, “sundown town laws, imprisonment in labor camps, became a reality in the lives of African Americans living in, or simply traveling in the South.

And as this reestablishment of White power was occurring, the statues glorifying the heroes and the Confederacy’s “heroic cause” began to appear across the South. Not only did these monuments project a sense of pride in the hearts of the South’s White society, but they also projected a message of who’s in charge to Black Americans passing by. A reminder, “know your place.”

Yes, so much has changed for the better since those days. But with that said, today in the eyes of 43-million Black Americans, and millions more of us, these statues are monuments to past cruelties and barbarous inequities. (As is the Stars and Bars Battle Flag.) They have been standing in prominent locations in southern communities for more than a century.

You think my choice of words are hyperbolic? If you’re an African American, these monuments are saying, “Folks around here still think that war we fought to keep people who look like you in slavery wasn’t all bad.” (It’s not a good message to send to White passersby either.) The time for these statues to disappear is now.

The events in Charlottesville may actually lead to the removal of many more of these Jim Crow reminders. Eventually, I hope all of them. Such actions are beginning to occur in a number of cities. The death of that inspiring young woman, Heather Heyer, could become a national catalyst for a greater awareness of the need to turn a page on the Civil War. That war ended over 150 years ago. It’s time for the South to stop living in a past that was poisonous for so many Americans. Could it happen? Probably it’s unlikely. But after what we’ve seen since 2016, I guess anything is possible.

Nels Howard
NTDO member since 1973