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Why are the United States’ confederate statues so controversial?

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


United States protest

United States protest

United States protest

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.

Towns and cities across the States have since rushed to remove symbols of glorification of a deeply troubling era in the nation’s history.

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.

Although the confederate flag was not the prominent symbol of the Confederacy during its existence, it started appearing again in the mid-20th century, when it was incorporated in the flags of Southern states.

So why exactly are some people opposed to their removal?

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.

Smith said that tension stems from a “deep refusal” of many white Americans across the country to acknowledge that the Civil War was a conflict sparked by slavery – a fact widely understood by historians, and accepted during the war.

“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?

“Things will get an awful lot worse before they get better, if at all they do get better, and it’s very difficult to have any optimism about the future of the United States,” Smith concluded.

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.