When Reconstruction began to take shape in the late 19th century, the unwilling reintegration of those who seceded ultimately gave way to some of the most heinous forms of systemic racism and violence in the country’s history. Historians note a resurgence of Confederate paraphernalia cropping up across the United States throughout the late 19th century and early to mid-20th century, with a large spike occurring between 1900 and 1920. However, within the last five years, we’ve seen greater pushback against these problematic monuments that were once heralded as paragons of heritage and culture.
2020 has brought the conversation of Confederate monuments to a head, with many arguing that the removal of these racist and violent monuments is erasure. These statues were grossly commemorated at the time of their inception and well into the present, but their removal is the most necessary part of acknowledging this country’s past.
If we reexamine the placement of all these monuments, the running trend is that they sit squarely in city spaces as an example of American “values” and “heritage,” though Confederate history involves very little of either. These historical markers of old, that now make up the names of school buildings, streets, counties and even towns, have gained considerable scrutiny since the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement, and for good reason.
George Floyd’s murder became the rallying cry for many who pushed for the removal of monuments and statues that commemorated these violent historical figures. Across North Carolina, there are 90 Confederate-related monuments, with many being highlighted as necessary for removal.
Chicago is another city at the center of the discussion, as Mayor Lori Lightfoot aimed to “temporarily”remove one of their last statues of Christopher Columbus. The problem, according to many Republican pundits, is that this censorship could ultimately lead to more damage than good. Many more misinterpret the necessary removal of these monuments as some kind of censorship of speech—an erasure that minimizes voices in some strange way.
This removal process is not erasure. It is the most necessary first step in coming to grips with the reality of what violence these figures wrought. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas went on the record this week, claiming the founding fathers saw slavery as a “necessary evil,” despite there being little to no evidence of them arguing such.
Cotton made these comments in his continued push to prevent The New York Times’ 1619 Project from being taught in schools, calling it “a racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded. Not a single cent of federal funding should go to indoctrinate young Americans with this left-wing garbage.”
Cotton’s comments conflate history and his take on American values, as he continues to frame seemingly innocuous sentiment in the guise of patriotism. When examined closely, however, we begin to see how racist ideology continues to exist in political circles.
Just as the 1619 Project isn’t revisionist history, removing and dismantling these monuments and statues of Confederacy isn’t changing the past. The reality remains that much of the fight BIPOC communities faced throughout Reconstruction and well into the Jim Crow era and beyond were stoked by the flames of the Confederacy.
Recently, a popular discussion making the rounds on social media involved “cancel culture,” which many fear stifles free speech and prevents thoughtful discourse. The truth is information is being made readily available to more people at a much more rapid pace than before, and the inherent racism and bigotry of previously unchecked things has gone unnoticed until now.
History is not being revised and speech is not being censored. Tyrants are being ousted. Violent speech is being called out. A recent Quinnipiac University national poll found 52% of voters supported the removal of Confederate statues from public spaces across the nation. Erasure isn’t when a monument honoring a tyrant is toppled. Instead, it occurs when that same monument is placed in communities as a symbol of fear.