They look solemn, proud, even heroic, the three white men on horseback, carved into the bare granite shoulder of Stone Mountain, Ga. – Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
The gray-clad trio peer out toward the nearby spires of Atlanta not as losers of the Civil War, but as stone embodiments of a social order that is both revered and reviled.
For generations, that Confederate legacy has seemed as set in stone as the monument itself – a bedrock element of Dixie identity. Now, however, the history of the Confederacy – and what it means to the South – is up for debate as never before from Kentucky to Mississippi.
The mass shooting last week at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., has renewed focus on the symbolic power of not only the Confederate battle flag, but the South’s entire pantheon of marbled heroes. The admitted shooter, Dylann Roof, published a racist screed and unfurled the battle flag in photos.
That Confederate monuments may no longer be sacred – and could even be unbolted and removed – suggests rapidly evolving moral and intellectual views of the South's complicated past, historians say. Those insights, unleashed by violence in the same city where the Civil War began, appear to be forcing a national reckoning over the power of rebel symbols, even those once seen as largely innocuous.
Almost overnight, Americans are deeply questioning the role and permanence of state-sanctioned symbols of a past regime founded on white supremacy in a present multiethnic and pluralistic society.
“There’s some validity to the fact that [flags and monuments] are part of Southern heritage, but then you have 30 percent of the population that are pretty highly offended by the flag” and other Confederate symbols, says Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at the University of Charleston in South Carolina. “True, you can’t restrict somebody’s free speech, but you can say that as a government or a state we’re not going to put it in a prominent place, given how it’s being used by [hate groups] and the fear that it brings to a large portion of our population.”
The Confederate battle flag has an extra layer of hateful meaning for African-Americans. It was raised by Southern states in defiance of federal integration measures in the 1950s and '60s. On Monday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the flag to be removed from state grounds, sparking a chorus of bipartisan agreement.
Beyond the battle flag
But it’s not only Confederate flags that are under renewed scrutiny after decades of opposition from civil rights groups. Many monuments to Southern heroes on campuses, capitol grounds, and courthouse squares are cloaked not just in remembrance, but outright declarations of white supremacy.
Take “Silent Sam,” a soldier statue that stands on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill. At the 1913 dedication ceremony, North Carolina industrialist Julian Carr memorialized the college students who fought and died for the Confederacy, but he also boldly proclaimed that the statue was a monument to white power.
This week, other Confederate symbols across the South and beyond are facing unprecedented scrutiny.
- Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) is leading an effort to evict a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the statehouse rotunda, perhaps to be replaced by a statue of Louisville-born boxer Muhammad Ali.
- Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada (D) suggested Tuesday that “it would be important that we look at some of the” Confederate statues positioned in the Capitol rotunda in Washington. States control which statues they want displayed at the rotunda, however, so there’s nothing Congress can immediately do.
- The University of Texas announced on Tuesday that it will call a panel of students and faculty to determine the future of a Jefferson Davis statue on campus. Over the weekend, vandals defaced the statue.
- Tennessee has seen a bipartisan call to remove a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Ku Klux Klan leader, from its Senate chamber alcove.
- Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) ordered the removal of the Confederate battle flag and three other Confederate symbols from the State Capitol grounds Wednesday.
- Mississippi Sens. Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran, both Republicans, on Wednesday called for the Mississippi state flag to be changed. The Mississippi flag includes the Confederate battle flag.
The public view of the Civil War itself might be shifting. At least up until now, polls have suggested that most Americans believe the Civil War was about states’ rights. In 2011, Pew reported that only 38 percent of Americans said the war was about slavery. But many historians say the war was directly about slavery, noting that Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declared in 1861 that “the cornerstone” of “our new government … rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – the subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.”
In calling for the removal of the rebel flag from the South Carolina statehouse, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican presidential aspirant, noted, after reflection, that, "I think the flag is inescapably a symbol of human bondage and slavery."
Efforts to remove controversial Confederate statues and monuments have been going on for decades, though slowly. The University of Mississippi fired its Colonel Rebel mascot in 2010 in favor of a black bear. The University of North Carolina recently changed the name of Saunders Hall, named after a Ku Klux Klan leader, to Carolina Hall.
Such efforts appear to have increasing public support, especially after last week’s Charleston attack. A Rasmussen poll published Wednesday noted that only 21 percent of likely United States voters want the Confederate flag to keep flying at the South Carolina capitol, compared with 60 percent who would like to see it removed.
“Just because in 1962 the South Carolina legislature said, ‘We’re going to raise this flag,’ why does that have to mean that the flag is always going to be raised?” says Kenneth Janken, a University of North Carolina historian, describing the post-Charleston shift in thinking among both liberals and conservatives. “Things can be reversed, they can be revoked. Compared to 1898, people now have a more broadly democratic idea of how power should be exercised. Why should that not be reflected in the monuments you choose to have, or the monuments you choose to retire?”
A convenient scapegoat?
The push to remove Confederate flags and monuments from state and federal land is already facing a backlash. Many Americans see efforts to tear down Confederate flags and monuments as akin to historical revision, more appropriate to the Soviet Union under Stalin.
“We’re on a slippery slope,” Jeff O’Cain, a former Sons of Confederate Veterans leader, told NBC News. “You’re going to try to eradicate history so that it doesn’t offend anybody. It already happened! We can’t change history.”
Moreover, some historians worry about the South becoming an easy racial scapegoat.
“This idea that the South is this backwards, medieval landscape, and racially terrible – all of that stuff is complete hogwash,” says Matthew Guterl, a historian at Brown University in Providence, R.I. “In truth, the whole nation has a whole set of very complex and quite disconnected problems related to this. There’s a political function to demonizing the South … and it works very well for politicians, but I reject that, because the North has also had its share of problems and does today. The North is still dealing with Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and other complicated problems related to how Northern cities police their populations.”
Whether the scrutiny of Confederate busts, monuments, and memorials continues once the aftermath of the Charleston shootings fades remains an open question. And though there is an online petition to stop flying the battle flag at Stone Mountain, dynamiting Jackson, Lee, and Davis seems, to say the least, unlikely.
Still, writes Megan Garber in the Atlantic, “the speed of all of this movement is astounding – a testament to the fact that the arc of history not only bends toward justice, but occasionally lurches toward it.”