We need to engage with the past, but not be prisoners to it

The white supremacist rally in Charlottesville has again sparked reflection on the meanings of Confederate symbols. In the wake of the rally, those seeking to distance Confederate symbolism from white supremacy bear the burden of proof.

 

Some condemn the white supremacy of Charlottesville, but insist that the symbolism involves a morally-neutral “heritage” – and that removing Confederate monuments would mean “erasing the past.”

I’m a history professor, vocationally devoted to recovering the past and driven by an obligation to seek the raw reality of the past, not a sanitized version. Indeed, I wish more Americans knew more history, not less.

In the middle of Broad Street is a massive monument to the Confederacy, formally dedicated in 1878. Ten years earlier, when the campaign for the monument began, Georgia had just entered a remarkable new political stage: a coalition of former slaves and free blacks, dissenting whites, and Northerners who had moved south joined together as the state’s new Republican Party and triumphed in state and local elections that spring.

 

For former Confederate leaders, this newly-ascendant, homegrown Republican Party represented a political apocalypse. Determined to destroy it by any means necessary, they organized as the Ku Klux Klan and used calculated acts of violence to create a climate of fear. Led by former Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon, the Klan made it dangerous to be a Republican.

Congress took action, and through the vigorous prosecution of the new Department of Justice (led by Georgia Republican Amos Akerman), the Klan was effectively dismantled throughout the South by late 1871. By then in Georgia, though, it was too late; Klan terrorism had propelled pro-Confederate Democrats back into power in the legislature.

Barely three and a half years after it had begun, Reconstruction in Georgia – that new stage marked by an ascendant interracial Republican Party – had come to an abrupt end. To ensure that it never returned, Democrats consolidated their power, writing a new constitution in 1877.

It introduced a cumulative poll tax, a barely-covert technique for excluding poor men from politics. Poor men – former slaves, mountain-county whites – had been the pillar of the state’s Republican Party. With their new disfranchisement, Republican votes declined dramatically after 1877, and the once-majority party ceased to be a meaningful force in the state.

 

This was the turbulent context in which Augusta’s monument was being crafted.

The monument was doing much more than commemorating the Confederate dead; memorials in Magnolia Cemetery could accomplish that. Rather, it was making a claim about public space, about who should wield power. It was invoking history – recent history – to make an assertive political statement.

The keynote speaker at the monument’s dedication made this point. Scion of the planter elite, a secessionist and Confederate officer, Charles Jones spoke unambiguously. “For the past we have no apologies to offer,” he said; “even now the fundamental claims” of the Confederacy “are, in a moral point of view, unaffected by the result of the contest.”

 

The Confederacy had lost the war, but the “holy cause” would live on.

What was “the cause”?

A clear answer comes from one of the men commemorated in statuary on the monument, Thomas R.R. Cobb, a planter, secessionist, principal author of the Confederate Constitution, and general killed in battle. In a passionate speech in November 1860, Cobb argued that the newly triumphant national Republicans were the political form of the “fanatical” abolitionist movement. Their victory at the polls posed a dire threat to the property rights of slaveholders and to the hierarchy of white over black.

“Let me die,” Cobb insisted, “before I shall bow before such fanatics as these.”

The only thing for liberty-loving white men to do was to leave the infected U.S. and form a new nation where such a threat would be unthinkable. The new Confederate States of America would protect slavery and racial hierarchy.

This was the “nation” commemorated on the monument.

How would its cause live on? First, by destroying the nascent state Republican Party and slamming the door shut on Reconstruction; second, by recovering not slavery but quasi-slavery.

 

In the 1880s Georgia’s resurgent Democrats began crafting this new quasi-slavery in the form of segregation laws. The Confederate monument tangibly expressed, in stone, the spirit of the resurgent Democrats: whites would rule Georgia, make no apology for slavery, secession or war, and perpetuate the racial hierarchy in new forms.

The monument was about history, but it was never just about history. It drew on history to make an unambiguous political claim in a very public place.

In our own time, as we ruminate on public monuments and what they commemorate, we’re engaging with the past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.

Like those who once installed them did, we too can make a political choice – in this case, to take them down.

 

John Hayes is associate professor of history at Augusta University. He is a native Georgian with deep family roots in the South.

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