President Trump was perverting history in his defense of Confederate monuments. In his rambling comparison of neo-Nazi groups and the opposition protestors, he twisted history. He claimed in numerous tweets that by defending these monuments he was defending history. In his tweets, President Trump compared the nation’s founding fathers to the rebels that attempted to dissolve the Union.
“You’re changing history. You’re changing culture… Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You…can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!”
President Trump’s defense of Confederate statues isn’t a defense of history. It’s well known that Trump doesn’t read or understand history. These Confederate statues weren’t built during the Reconstruction period immediately following the Civil War. The North would never have allowed the recognition or celebration of southern Civil War leaders following the War. They were considered rebellious traitors to the United States following the War. It wasn’t until the South regained political power in the late 1890s that they tried to rewrite the history of slavery and white supremacy.
Immediately following the Civil War, Congress passed the 1870 and 1871 Enforcement Acts. They were passed to protect African-Americans right to vote, to hold office, to serve on juries and to receive equal protection of laws. These laws authorized the federal government to intervene when states refused to protect these rights. Congress established Military Districts across the South and used Military personnel to administer law until new governments loyal to the Union could be established.
They specifically were aimed at banning the Ku Klux Klan entirely. The federal government banned the use of terror, force or bribery to prevent people from voting because of their race. KKK members were arrested and tried as criminals and terrorists. The Klan was nearly eliminated under the use of the Enforcement Acts.
The federal troops were withdrawn in 1876, ending the occupation of the South which signaled the rise of the old South. Government control was returned to local white control and the “Jim Crow” period was ignited. That began the reversal of the gains African-Americans had achieved in freedom and rights. In the next 20 years, they would lose almost all they had achieved. New Jim Crow laws were passed that stripped blacks of their rights and freedoms by these racist laws.
From 1890 to 1920 saw a flurry of Confederate monument building closely linked to rampant “Jim Crow” racism. The historical record shows that these monuments weren’t erected to simply celebrate southern heritage but to specifically frighten and intimidate African-Americans. This same period recorded the greatest number of lynching’s of black men across the South. The high point was reached in 1892. The KKK revived and became a powerful force of fear and intimidation.
The U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, ruled that public facilities for blacks and whites could be “separate but equal.” Separate facilities quickly became the rule throughout the South. Blacks were forced to obey curfews in their homes after 10 p.m. “Whites Only” or “Colored” signs were posted over doors, ticket windows, and drinking fountains. Oklahoma demanded separate black and white phone booths.
Prisons, hospitals, orphanages, schools and colleges all became separated by race. Black and white students in North Carolina had to use separate kinds of textbooks. The new “Separate but Equal” doctrine was anything but equal. Blacks became second class citizens as the South implemented Jim Crow laws.
This was the period when the South was emboldened to promote white supremacy. They were writing a revisionist history that the Civil War was just and slavery was a benevolent institution. They were erecting monuments to praise Confederate Generals as heroes as Jim Crow laws condoned violence and oppression of African-Americans. The monuments were put up as explicit symbols of white supremacy. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) was behind the installation of hundreds of Confederate heroes and generals throughout the South. The UDC’s singular goal was to vindicate the Confederacy.
In 1909 the first statue of a Confederate General, Robert E Lee was erected in the U.S Capitol. At the time it was considered a scandal by many in the North. Northern Congressmen called Lee a traitor to the country and opposed placing his likeness in the Capitol. However, an 1864 law allowed every state to place statues of two of their citizens in the Capitol. Lee was one of Virginia’s choices and Congress couldn’t or wouldn’t stop them.
The history of Confederate monuments and statues is a record closely linked to racism, white supremacy and the justification of slavery. They are a bitter symbolic reminder of an ugly racist period in our history. Place them in the context of a museum, not as figures to honor or venerate.
by Rick Smith
Photo via Flickr