The Week in Confederate Heritage

We begin our look at this week in the nationwide retreat of confederate heritage with this article, telling us, “Judge Timothy Walmsley’s recent ruling that the Confederate flag on defendant Travis McMichael’s truck is admissible in Ahmaud Arbery’s murder trial suggests that Confederate memorials aren’t simply racist symbols. Instead, they actively contribute to racial violence in our current moment. When Arbery was murdered by three white men while jogging in February 2020, the vanity plates on the defendants’ truck proudly displayed an outdated version of the Georgia state flag that included Confederate iconography. As prosecutor Linda Dunikoski noted, ‘Whether [Arbery] saw that on the truck or not, he was looking at the truck and that is what’s on the front of the truck.’ Understanding how this symbol has been used historically promotes a fuller understanding of the larger context in which the defendants brandished the flag. As historian John Coski has argued, after World War II and during the Civil Rights movement, the flag’s symbolism changed and it became closely associated with white supremacy. The hateful image has been strategically placed in parks, schools, public squares, courthouses, and military installations, among other public spaces, to advance the false narrative of white supremacy and Black inferiority. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Whose Heritage? database, 12 communities in the United States still display or incorporate the Confederate flag into official symbols—like the Alabama Coat of Arms. Also, the Sons of Confederate Veterans offer license plates in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee. In the words of activist Bree Newsome, the flag ‘is the banner of racial intimidation and fear […] a reminder [of] how, for centuries, the oppressive status quo has been undergirded by white supremacist violence.’ Even defense attorneys in the Arbery trial recognized this history when arguing that a Confederate license plate should not be admitted as evidence because a jury might recognize the flag’s historically racist intent.”

The article continues, “However, the flag is not the only Confederate memorial in question during the trial. As jury selection for the Arbery trial began, a private citizen covered Glynn County’s Confederate statue in plastic out of concern for its safety from vandals. Since its dedication in 1902,  the inscription etched into its panels conveys decades-old bitterness over their ‘lost cause,’ while promoting outright lies that paint Confederate soldiers as heroes who resisted an ‘unconstitutional invasion.’ Similar to other monuments erected by heritage groups in the wake of Reconstruction and during the Jim Crow era, the Glenn County monument served to intimidate Black communities. Too many of these monuments remain today – there are over 722 monuments live nationally which includes 111 live monuments in Georgia. Despite the Brunswick City Commission’s vote to remove this monument in Nov. 2020, it remains on public property. Moreover, scholars have shown the correlation between the location of Confederate monuments and racial terror lynchings. For example, the Confederate monument that stands in front of the Alamance County courthouse in North Carolina is located just a few yards away from the spot where a white mob lynched and murdered the formerly enslaved veteran and supporter of Black suffrage Wyatt Outlaw. While 2020 will be forever marred by the public lynching of George Floyd, a deadly pandemic that had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, and the slaying of Mr. Arbery, these events are reminiscent of racial terror lynchings. The three defendants’ relentless pursuit, dehumanizing filming, and intentional killing of an unarmed Black man jogging in his own neighborhood is a grim reminder that some people still hold no regard for a Black person’s life.”

According to the article, “When people are forced to pass a Confederate symbol – be it a monument, flag, or portrait –its presence signifies that committing treason against one’s government in an attempt to maintain the system of chattel slavery is morally acceptable. The psychological effects of this imagery on the passersby, and more importantly on judges and jurors, is real and has been documented by research. Despite the documented impact that Confederate memorials have, options for removing them in Georgia are limited because of draconian preservation laws. These laws keep Confederate memorials in place and thwart the will of communities that want to remove them. As Georgia and five other Southern states continue clinging to preservation laws, we maintain that the presence of these symbols is a blatant reassertion of white supremacy. Repealing these laws would enable communities to decide what and who to honor in public space. Today, more than 2,000 Confederate memorials continue to be used to deliver their intended message across the United States. However, there is also hope. Last year alone, more than 150 Confederate memorials were removed, relocated, or renamed. This year, communities have removed more than fifty symbols of Confederate hate and white supremacy. Although we continue to cry out for justice and for the removal of Confederate symbols from public space, we also realize that guilty verdicts will not bring Mr. Arbery back or make his family whole. Nor will it make Black people feel more secure when going about their daily lives. We call for an acknowledgment of the generational, retraumatizing, and vexing effect these tragic incidents awaken in Black people, who are forced to live knowing that the same thing could happen to them or their loved ones at any time and without warning. The very least we can do is to remove symbols of the Confederacy from public space because we do not need any more reminders.”

Photo of the inscription on the Confederate memorial in the Decatur Square, provided b Erik Voss.

We next look at this letter to “Decateurish” from Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt, in which Dr. Merritt writes, “We, the citizens of DeKalb County and the City of Decatur, petition you today for the removal of the Confederate memorial historically known as the DeKalb Monument. First, we hold that the Confederacy – created solely to serve the interests of the slave regime of the Old South – needs to be historicized as such. For African Americans, the Confederacy represents hundreds of years of terror, rape, brutalization, and enslavement; its monuments function as a constant reminder of an extremely painful past. Second, even for a large percentage of white southerners, slavery was deeply harmful. It spurred forces that drove down their wages, took their jobs, pushed them off the land, denied them civil rights, and kept them languishing in cycles of poverty. The Confederacy sought to perpetuate their impoverishment. Confederate monuments represent nothing more than fiction, an uncomplicated fantasy in which all whites proudly and bravely fought for the South – a South that is re-imagined without the attendant horrors of slavery. Third, we contend that for all the viciousness, violence, and oppression associated with the Confederacy, it is even more important to understand the historical context in which the DeKalb monument was erected.”

Dr. Merritt continues, “The earliest mention of a Confederate monument in Decatur occurred in early 1898, with an Athens paper proclaiming that ‘The Confederate veterans of DeKalb county are preparing to erect an imposing monument to the memory of the Confederate dead of that county.’ That very same year, racist Democrats who ran the state promoted the all-white primary while turning a blind-eye to widespread lynchings and mob violence – leading to the de facto disfranchisement of African American men. However, for some reason the monument was not erected until 1908, right on the heels of the incredibly violent Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, when angry whites slaughtered dozens of African Americans (some estimates are as high as one hundred), and injured many more. As local observer George Chidi wrote, these monuments were largely ‘spurred by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and their Klan-linked push to move monuments from cemeteries to town squares and to civilize the concepts of white supremacy and Jim Crow in a post-Reconstruction South.’ The original obelisk was supposed to be dedicated on Nov. 9, 1907, but during inscription at the Butler Marble and Granite Company in Marietta, a cable snapped and the statue shattered, requiring several additional months to rebuild. The Agnes Lee Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy raised the funds of around $2,000 from about a thousand local donors. By early March of 1908, Atlanta papers were eagerly anticipating the dedication of the new memorial. The DeKalb Monument’s official unveiling occurred at 10 o’clock in the morning of Saturday, April 25, 1908, in honor of Memorial Day. Confederate General Clement A. Evans, who was to accept the monument on behalf of the South’s veterans, had ‘three or four’ other monument dedications to attend around the state as well. This fact resulted in each town ‘fixing separate dates for the observance of Memorial day, so that they might have General Evans with them.’ Evans’ presence was necessary, local newspapers claimed, because ‘he will declare that the Confederate movement was founded in absolute truth.’ On the day of dedication, ‘youthful cadets…in khaki’ from the Donald Frasier school stood in ‘battle formation’ beside students from Agnes Scott. As ‘silence fell upon the thousand persons gathered in the courthouse square,’ Rebecca Candler–dressed all in white–unveiled the obelisk by pulling ‘gently at the cord.’ Candler was the youngest daughter of Charles Murphy Candler, an extremely wealthy Decatur politician. ‘A cheer—a rebel yell perhaps—broke from the throng,’ Atlanta papers reported, as ‘Confederate flags waved.’ While the crowd reveled in the spectacle of the ‘splendid shaft,’ former Confederates gave historically inaccurate, propagandistic speeches in which they tried to convince the crowd that disunion occurred over states’ rights – not slavery.”

As Dr. Merritt writes, “Although it remains unclear if he was actually in attendance, newspapers had advertised the previous week that Gov. Hoke Smith would give a brief address. Smith, one of the main instigators of the bloody Atlanta Race Riot, would also go down in Georgia history as the primary proponent of the state’s Grandfather Clause, which effectively disenfranchised all African Americans. General Clement A. Evans accepted the monument on behalf of Confederate veterans, giving a short speech defending secession and lauding the bravery of southern whites. Placing the blame for the Civil War upon the North, Evans ironically concluded that Confederates ‘loved the union as they love it still.’ The primary speaker of the day, however, was Georgia Congressman Hooper Alexander, who issued the dedication of the monument in a winding speech detailing the state’s history. Deeming white southerners ‘a noble race,’ he bragged about the incredibly deadly and inhumane process of Native American removal. ‘[S]trong in the high purpose of a civilizing instinct,’ Hooper bellowed, brave white Georgians ‘pushed back the Creeks and the Cherokees towards the Western hills.’ Much like his predecessor, Hooper ended his speech by referring to ‘the faiths of a covenant-keeping race.’ As soon as the speeches concluded, local public school children erupted ‘in a spirited Confederate song,’ and Wedemeyer’s band played ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag,’ ‘America,’ and ‘Maryland, My Maryland.’ They of course concluded with a rousing rendition of ‘Dixie.’ To conclude the ceremony, the children and cadets the marched over to the Decatur cemetery to decorate the graves of the Confederate dead.”

According to Dr. Merritt, “While the obelisk itself may not appear overtly racist at first look, however, its inscription reveals the monument’s true intention. Pro-slavery Confederates, it asserts, ‘were of a covenant keeping race who held fast to the faith as it was given by the fathers of the Republic.’ Almost anticipating the South’s future association with treason and slavery, the monument continues: ‘How well they kept the faith is faintly written in the records of the armies and the history of the times. We who knew them testify that as their courage was without a precedent their fortitude has been without a parallel. May their prosperity be worthy.’ Just two years after the Civil War, U.S. General John Pope wrote a letter to Ulysses Grant, expressing his concerns about how the War—and the causes of the Confederacy—would be remembered in history. ‘The rebellion was the result of a tremendous conspiracy, to destroy the nation’s life. It sought to obliterate civil liberty throughout the South – to reduce the Southern white laborer to the condition of the free negro, and the free negro to slavery; to re-open the African slave trade, and to establish over the South the despotism of an oligarchy founded alone on slavery…How cruel and remorseless its career was,’ he lamented, ‘how little it respected individual rights and the common laws of humanity when they stood in the way of its remorseless schemes.’ In closing, we are urgently requesting – in the name of what is right, and good, and moral about this city and county – that you consider removing this painful reminder of the worst of our history. Take down this daily remembrance of violence, white supremacy, and hate. Take down this horrific statue – a statue that lauds the ownership of human beings; a statue that rests upon a land soaked with the sweat of unfree labor, and stained by the blood of untold thousands. Take down this monument to racist cruelty and division, and perhaps as a community we may finally begin to come together and heal.”

This article from Tennessee tells us, “A Black man whose fate was decided by an all-white jury who deliberated in a room containing Confederate symbols will receive a new trial after a Tennessee’s Criminal Appeals Court ruling. Tim Gilbert was sentenced in June 2020 to six years in prison for aggravated assault and other charges connected with a 2018 altercation. But Gilbert and his attorney argued the symbols on display at the Giles County courthouse, the jury’s racial makeup and specific evidence allowed violated his right to a fair trial. Unbeknownst to Gilbert or his attorney at the time of the trial, the jury considered whether Gilbert was innocent or guilty in a room where an antique Confederate flag and a portrait of Confederate President Jefferson Davis hung. The room, decorated with other related memorabilia, is also named for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the organization founded in the 1890s in Nashville to memorialize Civil War ancestors and memorials. The ruling, issued Friday, found Gilbert’s defense provided enough evidence to show how a jury could be influenced while deliberating in such a room, while also making it clear Tennessee’s attorneys didn’t adequately respond to the allegations. In conjunction with the issue regarding the jury’s deliberation room, the appeals court found the trial court allowed a statement that should have been otherwise inadmissible. The appeal court’s ruling comes over a year after a Tennessee circuit judge denied Gilbert’s motion for a new trial.”

FILE - The pedestal that once held the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee stands empty on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. The pedestal has been covered in graffiti, with some describing it as a work of protest art that should be left in place. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
AP Photo by Steve Helber

This article gives us the big news out of Virginia. “Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Sunday that his administration will remove an enormous pedestal that until earlier this year held a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond. The announcement marks a reversal in course from September, when the statue was removed but the Democratic governor said the 40-foot-tall (12-meter-tall) pedestal, currently covered in graffiti, would stay. His administration also announced plans to transfer ownership of the grassy island in the middle of a traffic circle where the statue was located to the city of Richmond. The move comes about a month before Northam leaves office and Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, who has expressed less enthusiasm about the statue’s removal, is sworn in. ‘It was important to us that we do it now and before we leave office,’ said Alena Yarmosky, Northam’s spokeswoman. The deeding of the land, which was given to the commonwealth in the 19th century, was a request from the city so that the parcel could come under local control, Yarmosky said. State ownership has created logistical headaches with maintenance and security, she said. Preliminary work on the pedestal removal was expected to begin Monday, with the project expected to be ‘substantially complete’ by Dec. 31, according to a news release.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: