Commentary

Confederate statues preserve Southern heritage — the way Klan billboards did

Monuments to the Confederacy are nothing more than a campaign to counter our nation’s true history while opposing efforts toward equality and human rights for blacks.

Days after clashes in Charlottesville, Va., protesters toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier that had stood in front of the old Durham County Courthouse.


“Join & Support The United Klans of America, Inc.” Those were the words next to the image of a horseman in white sheet and hood, on a large billboard in Fayetteville, not far from Fort Bragg. “Help Fight Communism and Integration!” was also printed on the billboard, which wasn’t out on some isolated road, but sat near a motel and restaurant. A “Welcome to Fayetteville” placard was attached across the bottom.

I saw the billboard in the late 1960s and early 1970s, while my father was stationed at Fort Bragg, serving in the Army as a first sergeant and master sergeant, before and between two tours in Vietnam. That sign is an enduring memory of my brief time living near or on the base. It was one of the most familiar landmarks in town for African Americans, says a close friend of more than 30 years who is a Fayetteville native.

Searching online for images of that billboard, which, according to my friend, stayed around for at least another decade, I came across similar ones that had been in other North Carolina cities and towns. Some had a “This Is Klan Country” sign attached at the top.

The aim of the billboards couldn’t be clearer. They were a reminder to residents of those places that the Ku Klux Klan and its sympathizers were always around. The signs were a recruiting vehicle, letting violent racists know they would have a place to call home. Because advertising defines and dominates American life, it stands to reason that racial terror would have an ad strategy.

Many Southern communities, and some communities and institutions elsewhere, were devoted to a similar campaign when they erected statues honoring Confederate generals and other leader fighting to keep blacks enslaved. The post-Civil War origins of these monuments and the return to displaying Confederate flags were entirely a reaction to black progress and empowerment.

The monuments were mostly built after Reconstruction as the foundation was laid for Jim Crow and the disenfranchisement of blacks. The second uptick in the building of these statures was during the modern Civil Rights Movement as Southern states resisted desegregation.

Communities raced to erect these monuments while pushing the “Lost Cause” myth of why Southern states seceded and the Civil War occurred. They sought to glorify Robert E. Lee and the other Confederate leaders.

The building of the monuments aligned with this rewriting of history in which the Confederates were noble warriors fighting to protect their pastoral way of life from an overreaching federal government, though their actual stated purpose was to uphold white supremacy and maintain slavery.

Robert E. Lee was presented as expressing opposition to slavery, when in fact, he said blacks were better off as slaves and was known as a particularly cruel slave owner.

The statues were part of a campaign to counter the true history while opposing efforts toward equality and human rights for blacks.

Writer Jack Smith IV, in an online presentation for Mic, called the statues “mass-produced propaganda.” He noted how easily the statue in Durham was pulled down and how it crumpled upon impact. It was an example of statues cheaply made by companies such as Monumental Bronze Co. and erected across the South, Smith says. When towns didn’t want to pay the few hundred dollars it cost to make those statues, the United Daughters of the Confederacy would provide funding. That organization, Smith points out, takes up efforts such as removing black history from textbooks and school curriculums.

The statues feature heroic representations with inscriptions about duty, honor, courage, purity and standing up against insurmountable odds. Never has a losing side been given so much credit, while ignoring the treason, murder, and torture it fought to defend.

The statues and other monuments are part of this decades-long effort to sanitize and obscure the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow. Those who say the statues should be kept in public spaces to honor brave Americans and to explain the nation’s history are presenting false arguments. The Confederate States withdrew from our country to establish their own, with their own president and own constitution.

Unless Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis are portrayed as traitors to the United States, white supremacists, and defenders of slavery, any public display of the statues is a lie.

So when neo-Nazi and Klan elements descended on Charlottesville, Va., to object to the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue and the renaming of a park to Emancipation Park, they were following in a long tradition of defending revisionist history and taking a stand for white supremacy.

While they try to uphold the “Lost Cause” myth, they put forth an entire array of modern-day myths grounded in racial resentment, xenophobia, antisemitism, and misogyny.

Tiki torches, clubs, and shields in hand, they marched along with their Nazi chants. They told anyone who will listen that they: didn’t get a job or a school admission because a black guy got it, aren’t making more money because Mexican immigrants are taking all the jobs, can’t get a loan because of the Jew running the bank, and can’t get a date because the society has turned women against them.

They said objections to their use of racial insults limited their free speech. They said everyone’s heritage is honored except theirs.

These kinds of beliefs don’t materialize on their own. People are fed them by their political leaders. The lies are reinforced and go unchallenged. The pattern is playing out as it always has. People accept lies that make them comfortable with their resentments and prejudices.

Nobody is arguing that removing Confederate statues will instantly bring about racial or any other kind of reconciliation. But any move toward further racial progress starts with confronting our past honestly. When those statues come down, it is out of recognition that those being honored didn’t deserve it. That brings some measure of justice to those who were harmed by the institutions the Confederates fought to uphold.

The Ku Klux Klan billboards eventually did come down. Maybe it was because nobody was around to lease the space anymore. But it would be better if it was because our country would no longer tolerate them.

Mark Allan Williams is a writer living in Baltimore. His essays examine issues of culture, race, and politics.

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