Reflections on Charlottesville

By Nina Silber, Boston University

This past August, Charlottesville, Virginia provided the stage for a protest that seemed frighteningly reminiscent of Nazi Germany. With 250 white men chanting slogans of hate – “blood and soil,” “Jews will not replace us” – many Americans rightly wondered how a small American college town could play host to such a scene of terror. The terror intensified when white nationalists and counter-protestors clashed and one anti-fascist demonstrator, Heather Heyer, was murdered when a white supremacist drove a car into the crowd.

The stage for this terror had, of course, been set by Charlottesville’s Confederate monuments, statues that had stood in city parks and city squares for 100 or so years, paying homage to the men who had led a failed political movement 50-60 years before their marble and bronze likenesses were ever built. The decision by the Charlottesville city council to remove a 1924 statue to Robert E. Lee had motivated the white nationalist protestors. That statue, said protest organizer Jason Kessler, “is the first and foremost reason that we’re having this rally, for that park and for that statue. It’s about white genocide. It’s about the replacement of our people, cultural and ethnically. And that statue is the focal point of everything.”

Some might wonder how a statue to a man often depicted in history books as brave and heroic could generate these kinds of sentiments and galvanize neo-Nazi protestors. But taking a long view of US history, going back to the era when the Confederacy itself first came into being, offers, I think, considerable, albeit troubling, clarity.

First, we need to reckon with the fact that the Confederacy’s founding rested on a brutal and explicit dedication to the principles of white supremacy. Although school text books often obfuscate Confederate principles with vague references to “states’ rights,” Confederate leaders understood their foremost objectives revolved around protecting, preserving and expanding their system of slavery and the racial underpinnings of that system. Our new government, explained Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in 1861, “rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Stephens’s government failed in their bid to create an independent slave state, but Confederate thinking persisted amongst white Southerners, and even in the political and cultural life of the entire US nation, for years after Appomattox. There may have been no more pointed reflection of this white supremacist mentality than the 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, a movie that depicted the triumph of the white race over savage-like blacks in the aftermath of the Civil War and that achieved huge popularity across the country. At the same time Birth of a Nation was sweeping the country, Southerners were in the midst of a monument craze, erecting statues to the soldiers and leaders of the Confederacy. Although some saw those monuments as a way to pay homage to a generation of men rapidly passing away, Confederate memorialization in this era also dovetailed with the efforts of white Southern politicians to solidify a Jim Crow system and to erect a civic landscape that welcomed and celebrated white people while pushing African Americans to the margins. In Charlottesville, for example, a black neighborhood was demolished in order to make way for a park that would be home to a soaring statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. At an unveiling ceremony in North Carolina in 1913, a white businessman spoke admiringly of the Confederate soldiers being honored as men who came to the defense “of the Anglo Saxon race.” This same speaker also bragged about how, soon after the war’s close, he “whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds because she had maligned a Southern lady.” Notable, too, is the fact that these statues were commissioned in an era when African Americans had been disenfranchised and barred from political office, thereby stripping them of any official channel for protesting this Confederatization of the Southern landscape.

In later years, the Confederacy and its symbols would remain a touchstone for those touting racist views. Adolf Hitler himself regretted that “the beginnings of a great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality” had been destroyed when the South lost the Civil War. The founder of an explicitly violent anti-Semitic group in the 1930s explained that his organization was dedicated to the ideals of southern chivalry and other “principles of the Old South” before the Civil War. In 1946, a Life Magazine reporter discovered an Atlanta organization affiliated with the KKK that venerated both Robert E. Lee and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

In the 1950s, Civil Rights counter-demonstrators may not have venerated Hitler, but they surely used the symbols of the Confederacy, especially the Confederate flag, to promote white supremacy. A photographer from that era recalls: “Southerners who believed in racial segregation displayed Confederate flags instead of the American flag.” In 1962, South Carolina legislators passed a resolution that would permit the Confederate flag to fly over the State House dome, never specifying a time when it would come down. True, the timing coincided with the Civil War’s centennial, but the placement of the flag also offered a voice to those protesting federal interference on civil rights. Moved to the South Carolina State House grounds in 2000 (following considerable protest by the NAACP), this flag would not be removed from this site until 2015 following the murder of nine black worshippers in a Charleston church by an avowed white supremacist, Dylann Roof. Consistent with the troubling history outlined here, photographs of Roof showed him posing proudly with the Confederate flag.

And so the events in Charlottesville, while shocking on so many levels, also seem tragically consistent with the historic place of the Confederacy itself, and the way the memory of the Confederacy has become a rallying point for a host of movements dedicated to racism, white nationalism, and even fascism. In some way, the Charlottesville protestors have forced us to strip a veneer of gentility away from Confederate monuments, perhaps even from the men those monuments were built to honor, and see a little more clearly the racist underpinnings in the history that surrounds them.

Photo Credit: First Pennsylvania Cavalry Monument in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, by Martha Venable, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.