The violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Va. earlier this month stemming from a protest led by white nationalists over the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee reopened some wounds in this country that have clearly never healed.
When 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed after a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters gathered to oppose a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, everything changed.
The car was allegedly driven by a 20-year-old Ohio man described as a “Nazi sympathizer,” who has been charged with second-degree murder, along with several other felonies involving the horrific incident.
“They tried to kill my child to shut her up, but guess what, you just magnified her,” Bro said, referring to the white supremacists and neo-Nazis. “I’d rather have my child, but by golly if I got to give her up, we’re going to make it count.”
Not long after the violence erupted in his city, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer announced he had changed his mind about the Robert E. Lee statue in the city park.
Prior to the protest, he simply wanted to create “a new context” around the statue of the Confederate general, according to CNN.
Now, he wants it gone.
“I think everything changed,” Signer recently told CNN, referring to the racial violence that broke out in his city. “I think that was one of those moments in the nation’s history where everything turns. I’ve been likening it in my mind to Dylann Roof, and the water hoses on the peaceful protesters in Birmingham, or Joseph Welch confronting McCarthy, saying ‘At long last, have you no decency?’”
Seeing that kind of hatred overflowing in his city shook him to his core, Signer said.
“All of a sudden, these statues of Civil War generals installed in the Jim Crow era, they became touchstones of terror, the twisted totems that people are clearly drawn to, trying to create a whole architecture of intimidation and hatred around them that was visited around our town,” he told CNN. “It was evil.”
Unfortunately, two years ago, South Carolina was awakened to the horrors of racist hate groups when 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study meeting at the historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015, and viciously murdered nine of its African-American members.
Roof, who proudly posed for several photos of him holding the Confederate flag, told friends that he wanted to start a “race war.”
Instead, then-S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley demanded the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State House, where it had flown since 1962.
“Today we are here in a moment of unity in our state without ill will to say it is time to remove the flag from our capitol grounds,” Haley said in 2015. “This flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state.”
Then-President Barack Obama, during his eulogy of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney who was murdered by Roof, commended Haley for her call to bring down the Confederate flag in Columbia.
“Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness,” Obama said. “It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people, was wrong.”
Following the violence in Charlottesville this month, the nation is once again faced with a difficult question: Should monuments to the Confederacy and its icons remain standing in public centers?
There are also 109 public schools named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis or other Confederate icons; 80 counties and cities named for Confederates; 9 official Confederate holidays in six states; and 10 U.S. military bases named for Confederates, according to research by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Over the past two weeks, several Confederate monuments have been removed around the country following the violence in Charlottesville. Or, if they haven’t been removed, many have been vandalized or covered for their protection.
“I thought that there’s enough grandstanding, enough speeches being made,” Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh of Baltimore said at a news conference. “Get it done.”
Almost immediately after the violence in Charlottesville, the mayor of Lexington, Ky., announced plans to remove two Confederate-era monuments from his city’s former courthouse.
“Today’s events in Virginia remind us that we must bring our country together by condemning violence, white supremacists and Nazi hate groups,” Mayor Jim Gray stated. “We cannot let them define our future.”
In Durham, N.C., a 1924 monument of a Confederate soldier that stood outside the old county courthouse was pulled down from its pedestal and destroyed.
On the engraved granite pedestal were the words, “In memory of ‘the boys who wore the gray,’” and on the other side was an image of a Confederate flag.
The statue was left in a mangled pile as protesters continuously kicked the crumpled figure.
Some of the protesters in Durham are now being charged with felony and misdemeanor charges. However, despite their very public display of vandalism, the protesters still have many supporters.
Last week, hundreds of people showed up at the Durham County Sheriff’s Office to “confess” to vandalizing the statue and collectively accept responsibility for the protesters’ actions.
In Knoxville, Tenn., a 1914 monument honoring fallen Confederate soldiers was splattered with paint and some residents are calling for it to be removed from a neighborhood near the University of Tennessee, The New York Times reported this week.
Alabama’s attorney general also is arguing against the Birmingham mayor’s decision to cover a more than 50-foot-tall obelisk established in 1905 in the downtown area to honor Confederate soldiers with wooden panels. The attorney general claims it violates state law prohibiting the removal of historical structures, including those honoring the Confederacy.
Last week, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams said the carving “remains a blight on our state and should be removed.”
“We must never celebrate those who defended slavery and tried to destroy the union,” Abrams stated.
However, not only would erasing the gigantic sculpture be an expensive endeavor and logistical nightmare, it also would require a change in state law.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this week that the Georgia code clearly states that the memorial should be “preserved and protected for all time as a tribute to the bravery and heroism of the citizens of this state who suffered and died in their cause.”
These are only a small fraction of the number of cities currently debating whether their Confederate monuments still have a place on public property.
Now, it’s Augusta’s turn.
On Thursday, Aug. 24, the Augusta chapter of the NAACP plans to rally at 6 p.m. in front of Augusta’s Confederate monument located in the center of the 700 block of Broad Street.
The local chapter is asking for the removal of the 76-foot-tall monument on Broad Street that honors Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, Thomas R.R. Cobb and William H.T. Walker.
On top of the monument is the statue of a lower-ranking Confederate soldier, Berry Benson, a native of Hamburg, S.C.
“Constructed in 1875 by an Italian artist, the white marble memorial climaxed a 10-year project headed by the Augusta Ladies Memorial Association. It was officially dedicated on Oct. 31, 1878,” according to The Augusta Chronicle’s archives.
At the base of the monument is the inscription, “No nation rose so white and fair. None fell so pure of crime.”
The late Augusta historian and author Ed Cashin told the Chronicle in 1993 that the Confederate monument was meant to memorialize the anonymous soldier.
“They felt the enlisted man deserved the attention, so they put him atop the pinnacle,” Cashin said.
About a decade after the Civil War ended, Benson chronicled his experiences on the battlefield in a collection of writings that were eventually published into a book called, “Berry Benson’s Civil War Book: Memoirs of a Confederate Scout and Sharpshooter” by the University of Georgia Press.
In the book, Benson describes how Confederate soldiers were suffering from malnourishment and were forced to “scrutinize animal manure hoping to find grain as a diet supplement.” He also described that when Confederate soldiers were held as prisoners of war at New York State’s Elmira Prison, the rebels “humored themselves by chasing rats,” the Chronicle reported.
According to the book, Benson and his younger brother never submitted to defeat, and walked home with their rifles in hand after Lee surrendered in 1865.
His statue now stands on top of the Confederate monument on Broad Street.
While most residents accept that the Civil War is part of Augusta’s history, following the violence in Charlottesville, the local chapter of the NAACP is now asking city leaders to remove the monument from Broad Street.
Some residents believe the Georgia chapter of the NAACP sparked the Augusta rally after its president called on Gov. Nathan Deal, the Georgia General Assembly and all of the state’s mayors to remove all Confederate symbols from government property.
“We, as the descendants of the Americans that were victims of the barbaric attacks of slavery which were perpetrated by the Confederate States of America, believe that it is past time to remove those symbols from government properties,” Phyllis Blake, the president of the NAACP Georgia, stated.
Blake insisted that the Confederate monuments no longer have a place in the Peach State.
“The traitors of the Confederate States of America were soundly defeated over 150 years ago, and today, we as diverse Georgians, must send a message once and for all, that Georgia is the state too busy to hate,” Blake stated in a press release.
“Georgia is a great state and home to people of all heritages. Georgia and American values should trump the hate that flows from the continued celebration of Confederate States of America.”
Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis and most of the Augusta commissioners have chosen not to publicly comment on their feelings regarding the Confederate monument.
But everyone from politicians to professors to even descendants of Confederate leaders are speaking out about the monuments across the nation.
In fact, two great-great-grandsons of Stonewall Jackson — William Jackson Christian and Warren Edmund Christian — wrote a letter to the mayor of Richmond, Va., last week stating they believed the Confederate monuments honoring their ancestors should be taken down or moved to other settings.
“As two of the closest living relatives to Stonewall, we are writing today to ask for the removal of his statue, as well as the removal of all Confederate statues from Monument Avenue,” the brothers wrote to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. “They are overt symbols of racism and white supremacy, and the time is long overdue for them to depart from public display. Overnight, Baltimore has seen fit to take this action. Richmond should, too.”
The brothers stated that the violence in Charlottesville showed the nation “unequivocally that Confederate statues offer pre-existing iconography for racists.”
“To them, the Robert E. Lee statue is a clear symbol of their hateful ideology,” the brothers wrote. “We are writing to say that we understand justice very differently from our grandfather’s grandfather, and we wish to make it clear his statue does not represent us.”
The men say they fully accept the past realities of their ancestors.
“While we are not ashamed of our great-great-grandfather, we are ashamed to benefit from white supremacy while our black family and friends suffer,” the brothers wrote. “We are ashamed of the monument.”
A descendant of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederate States of America, told the Associated Press last week that he supports moving the statues to more appropriate settings, such as museums.
However, Bertram Hayes-Davis stated that he believes that “complete removal is wrong.”
Robert E. Lee V, an athletic director at The Potomac School in McLean, Va., and the great-great-grandson of the Confederate general, said the family hates to see the Confederate statues be a source of division.
“If taking down the statues helps us not have days like Charlottesville, then we’re all for it,” Lee told the Associated Press. “Take ‘em down tonight.”
Professors all over this country also are voicing their opinions about whether or not removing these memorials and statues honoring the Confederacy will help heal our country or simply erase history.
These monuments celebrate soldiers and generals like Robert E. Lee, who many still claim was a “critic of slavery who only grudgingly joined the Confederacy,” Cox wrote.
However, violent scenes like those in Charlottesville disproves the notion that these monuments are about “heritage, not hate,” she stated.
“Confederate monuments have always been symbols of white supremacy,” Cox wrote. “The heyday of monument building, between 1890 and 1920, was also a time of extreme racial violence, as Southern whites pushed back against what little progress had been made by African-Americans in the decades after the Civil War. As monuments went up, so did the bodies of black men, women and children during a long rash of lynching.”
That’s history, Cox argued.
“In the civil rights era, segregationists again sought to push back any attempt to challenge white male supremacy. Once again, they rallied under the banner of the Confederate battle flag,” she wrote. “But this time, local and state officials from law enforcement and state agencies like the Sovereignty Commission in Mississippi joined them in their effort.”
During the civil rights movement, more monuments to the Confederacy went up.
“Once again, rather than seeing clearly that Confederate monuments stand at the very center of the white-supremacist imagination, too many people are clouding the issue,” Cox wrote. “Some of my fellow historians have naïvely suggested that we need to keep them to teach us the darker lessons of Southern history. But at what cost? The Lee monument and others like it have assisted the cause of white supremacy and the deadly violence that has accompanied it.”
Therefore, Cox argued that communities across the region have a “moral obligation” to remove the statues.
“Artifacts of hate will be lost,” she wrote, “but their history and meaning will not.”
Following the violent protests in Charlottesville, President Donald Trump was accused of defending white nationalists by also questioning if statues to the Confederacy should be taken down.
“So this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” Trump told reporters. “I notice that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder: Is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself — where does it stop?”
Jon Meacham, a professor at Vanderbilt University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of biographies of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, tried to answer Trump’s question in an op-ed this week.
“To me, the answer to Mr. Trump’s question begins with a straightforward test: Was the person to whom a monument is erected on public property devoted to the American experiment in liberty and self-government? Washington and Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were,” Meacham wrote. “Each owned slaves; each was largely a creature of his time and place on matters of race. Yet each also believed in the transcendent significance of the nation, and each was committed to the journey toward “a more perfect Union.”
However, the Confederate hierarchy fails that test, he wrote.
“Those who took up arms against the Union were explicitly attempting to stop the American odyssey. While we should judge each individual on the totality of their lives (defenders of Lee, for instance, point to his attempts to be a figure of reconciliation after the war), the forces of hate and of exclusion long ago made Confederate imagery their own,” Meacham wrote. “Monuments in public places of veneration to those who believed it their duty to fight the Union have no place in the Union of the 21st century — a view with which Lee himself might have agreed. ‘I think it wiser,’ Lee wrote in 1866, ‘not to keep open the sores of war.’ Of course, Lee lost that struggle, too.”
But some professors across the country argue these statues should not be removed.
Pamela Sterne King, a University of Alabama at Birmingham assistant professor with a focus on public history and historic preservation, told the Alabama Media Group this week that local cities should “consider the effects of sanitizing history.”
“If we’re going to make a decision about what history we’re going to put out in the public space and what we’re going to decide not to put out there, it’s really important to do it right,” King said. “You’ve got to be careful when you edit history.”
Groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution began commissioning and erecting Confederate monuments in the late 1800s and early 1900s, she said.
“Those monuments had to do with the Southern resurgence and a restatement of Southern pride, and all those things that were really indicative of that particular moment — the Progressive Era,” King said. “And as a public historian, I’m really hesitant to remove permanent structures because they’re controversial or because they evoke negative understanding. I’m always going to want to keep public history intact in the public square.”
There are other communities around the country that openly embrace the Confederate symbols and memorials.
In fact, a city commissioner in Eustis, Fla., came under fire last week when he suggested that cities and counties across the nation struggling to decide what to do Confederate statues and monuments should donate them to his city.
Anthony Sabatini, a city commissioner for Eustis, asked that “any cities or counties that would like to donate their Confederate monuments” should give them to Eustis.
“We will gladly accept and proudly display our nation’s history,” Sabatini wrote on his Facebook page. “Thank you.”
However, some of his fellow commissioners in Eustis weren’t as eager to endorse his suggestion.
But tension over the past few weeks have caused several political leaders to take a step back and look at their region’s history.
While some leaders in CSRA are questioning whether the Confederate monument on Broad Street should remain standing, a few people in the community can’t help but consider other controversial past local politicians such as longtime U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.
The South Carolina Republican was the longest-serving U.S. senator in history and the oldest person to serve in Congress.
When Thurmond ran for president in 1948 as a “Dixiecrat,” he told the media that “on the question of social intermingling of the races, our people draw the line.”
“All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement,” Thurmond reportedly said.
Thurmond’s opposition to integration, which he often attributed to Communism, was the hallmark of his career in Washington until the 1970s, according to The Washington Post.
Thurmond’s 24-hour filibuster against civil rights legislation of 1957 still remains the longest filibuster in history.
He became a major leader in the Republican Party even after describing portions of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 as “stupid and illogical.”
After Thurmond’s death in 2003 at age 100, it was eventually revealed that the late segregationist had a biracial daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams.
Thurmond had fathered the child with a teenage black housekeeper in 1925, but Essie Mae Washington-Williams kept her father’s identity secret until his death because she told reporters that she “never wanted to do anything to harm him.”
Yet, despite his highly controversial legacy, Thurmond is still honored, even revered, in this region.
There is a life-size statue of Thurmond in Edgefield, S.C.’s town square.
In 1987, Congress voted to rename Clarks Hill Lake after Thurmond.
The renaming of the lake and dam was quietly done without any real regard given to the lake’s true namesake, an Augustan named John Mulford Clark, who owned land where the community of Clarks Hill, S.C., now exists.
And, of course, there is Strom Thurmond High School which currently serves a larger black student population than white students, and yet, the Thurmond name still stands.
The only slightly controversial change in the school’s history occurred more than a decade ago when the high school got rid of the its former mascot, “Colonel Reb,” which resembled an old Southern aristocrat.
Today, the school’s mascot is a Bluetick Hound Dog named “Rebel.”
The truth is, history is difficult to grapple with sometimes, especially when politics is involved, stated Brian Rosenwald, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the co-editors of “Made by History.”
Rosenwald pointed out in a column last week in The Washington Post that both Democrats and Republicans embraced controversial figures such as Thurmond over the years.
“The Republican dance with the complicated politics of race in the South began when South Carolina Democratic Sen. Strom Thurmond jumped ship and joined the GOP on Sept. 16, 1964,” he wrote.
“Thurmond had a long history as an arch-segregationist. When the Democratic Party came out in support of civil rights in 1948, he bolted, running for president as an independent. A decade later, he conducted a 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Despite this record, Republicans welcomed Thurmond with open arms.”
“Thurmond quickly became a key figure in Republican politics because of his popularity with Southern whites, a constituency GOP leaders viewed as key to reviving the party.”
However, Rosenwald warned, the chickens always eventually come home to roost.
“When Republican Abraham Lincoln captured the presidency, white Southerners seceded from the Union,” Rosenwald wrote. “During and after the Civil War, Republicans became the party of emancipation, a legacy that their modern-day successors like to invoke to ward off criticisms of racism.”
But the white supremacist campaign in Charlottesville to defend the legacy of the Confederacy in Charlottesville occurred under the banner of “Unite the Right,” he wrote.
“The white supremacists proudly identified as part of the party that Lincoln built,” Rosenwald pointed out. “The horrific spectacle highlighted the complicated relationship that the modern Republican Party has with racial conservatives. … Through a combination of racially coded phrases like states’ rights and law and order, the Republican Party has absorbed the rhetoric and ideas of the former Confederacy.”
And caught in the middle of this country’s racial tensions are cities all across the country like Augusta, trying to encourage racial harmony, while still accepting its history and trying to build a stronger future.
There is no easy solution, wrote Jon Meacham, the professor at Vanderbilt University.
“Facts, as John Adams said, are stubborn things — and, for Southerners, they are also often uncomfortable,” he wrote. “If we don’t face them forthrightly, we risk living in worlds of fantasy and fable, subject not to reason, the greatest of gifts, but susceptible to passion, the most dangerous of forces.”