The Ecology of Confederate Monuments, Continued
So what we have here is not a static situation inherited from the days of slavery, but one of dynamic change—as the color line and a legal system of segregation were being created and put into place. To outline in broad strokes some of the innovations:
First, there’s that stricter “one-drop” rule, already noted, of how you were defined as being black or white. And that definition was asymmetrical. A white woman who became involved in an interracial relationship with a black man could give birth to a quote-unquote “black” baby—resulting in huge scandal. But a black woman in a similar interracial relationship with a white man could never give birth to a white baby; the “one-drop” rule ran only in one direction.
Second, the color line required a much sharper system of disfranchisement than existed, even after the end of Reconstruction in 1877. It’s only in 1890 that Mississippi took the lead in taking the vote away from African Americans, by instituting poll taxes and literacy tests. Before these new requirements, Mississippi had a quarter of a million eligible voters, black and white. By 1892, less than 72,000 citizens were eligible to vote. By 1908 every southern state had put in place similar limitations.
Third, a more rigorous system of social segregation was instituted. In Memphis, for example, there was no “back of the bus” rule for streetcars in the 1880s—you could sit anywhere, never mind your race. Over the decade, new laws and systems eliminated such ambiguities in restaurants, theaters, hotels and public transportation. And it’s only in 1896, of course, that these sharper lines are fully validated by the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson, and the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
Fourth, the most draconian enforcement of the new color line was lynching, which sees a sharp rise in numbers at the end of the 1880s and into the 1890s. Well over a hundred lynchings occurred every year during the 1890s, events that were sometimes well attended by hundreds and even thousands of white spectators. Postcards were sold memorializing such occasions, children were even let out of school sometimes so the whole family could attend.
In short, it’s only decades after the end of slavery that a culture of white supremacy arose in full flower, proudly celebrated by what were called “White Supremacy Jubilees.” Also, in this new lay of the land, in 1910, showing the film of black boxer Jack Johnson beating James Jeffries, the so-called “Great White Hope,” was banned throughout the South. Further emphasizing this new regime, white-instigated riots occurred in cities like Atlanta and Tulsa, often going on for days as black houses and businesses were burned and looted. Such riots, one should note, were not unknown in the North either, where they were sometimes accompanied by the chant, “Lincoln freed you, we’ll show you where you belong.”
It’s in this historical context, in this habitat, that monuments to Confederate Civil War figures come to be erected. The high tide of the sea-change comes after 1913 as Woodrow Wilson’s administration puts in place a more systematic policy of segregation throughout the federal government, the treasury department leading the way with segregated toilets and partitions separating white workers from black. And in 1915 D. W. Griffith’s racially incendiary Birth of a Nation premiered, a film which Griffith hoped would convert all Americans to the South’s white cause. Woodrow Wilson loved the picture and is said to have commented, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” That same year, a dozen Southerners, inspired by the film, met on the summit of Stone Mountain, Georgia, where they burned a cross and re-launched the Ku Klux Klan, which had been moribund for decades.
Also in 1915, Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who would later create Mount Rushmore, visited Stone Mountain and accepted the challenge to create a gigantic monument to the Confederacy etched into its granite face. The sheer enormity of the project caused it to languish by the end of the 1920s but you will perhaps no longer be surprised to learn that another event in 1954 galvanized the state of Georgia to finish the work. That event was the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education calling for school desegregation in the South. Indeed, the coming of the civil rights movement inaugurated a new rash of Confederate monuments, created now in opposition.
In short, monuments like Stone Mountain are part and parcel of this evolving habitat, an inseparable part of the ecology of white supremacy.
Now—very quickly—I’d also like to take a crack at a second ecology of monuments, namely today’s habitat. Given what I’ve just laid out, it’s clear why Richard Spencer and other alt-right white supremacists marched in Charlottesville to protest taking down a monument to Robert E. Lee. Then, too, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans tried to carry out the city’s decision to remove four Confederate monuments, the few businesses willing to rent him a crane were harassed into withdrawing their offers. The one contractor who didn’t had his car firebombed. As Landrieu noted, “This is the very definition of institutionalized racism. You may have the law on your side, but if someone else controls the money, the machines, or the hardware you need to make your new law work, you are screwed.” When Landrieu finally obtained a crane, vandals poured sand in its gas tank and drones were used to try to disrupt the work.
There are many more individuals supporting these monuments who are not overtly racist. Roger conjured up for us great-great Grandpappy Jeremiah and his descendants, as well as the myth of the Lost Cause, that web of fictions woven by white supremacists denying the importance of slavery to the coming of the Civil War. We need to reach these more moderate people. But the debate over statues is contentious precisely because the ecology of the Lost Cause still runs deep. Those of us who are not from the South should not get on our high horses simply to piss off rednecks. But we should keep on insisting, in our teaching, not only that slavery was quite clearly the cause of the war, but also that the social construct of race became even more central in the 1890s to the regime of legal segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North. America’s Original Sin touches us all. If we could get these messages across, we would make progress.
But the truth is, I don’t think persuasion and forbearance are going to usher in that much change. My classmates and I graduated in 1968 in the middle of a civil rights revolution and mounting opposition to a war wreaking destruction in Southeast Asia. The War in Vietnam was not ended merely through peaceful dialogue. Nor was a deeply rooted system of slavery abolished without four years of wrenching war. And the legal system of segregation created in the 1890s was not torn down without the concerted protests of the civil rights movement.
In temperament, I’m a guy who wants to follow the prophet Isaiah: “Come, now, and let us reason together.” But as a historian, it seems to me that these features of American life, enmeshed so pervasively in our culture, won’t be dispersed without some hard pushing.
In 1963, as Martin Luther King was languishing in Birmingham jail, white clergy from Alabama published a letter begging him to ease up. A “constructive and realistic approach to racial problems” was on the horizon, they suggested and, like many southern white liberals, they believed that King’s demonstrations were “unwise and untimely.” King responded in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, that he had never yet “engaged in a direct action movement that was ‘well timed,’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”
We’ve been seeing a repeat of this ‘hard pushing’ in the last year or two… with the Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement, the more recent wave of teachers strikes and marches, high schoolers marching against gun violence… and with the debate over monuments. The rise of Donald Trump, a man whose flagrant transgressions have given racism and misogyny new legitimacy, may call for even stronger opposition through direct action.
But we know this, of course, members of the Class of ’68…. Because we’ve been there.