Sometimes people wonder why the Confederate monuments matter? As if getting rid of them will end racism! No one argued that, but they matter a lot because there is a war over public memory of the Civil War that is central to race. Despite what a lot of people think, the Confederate memorials were not erected immediately after the Civil War. Largely they went up between the 1890s and 1910s and were central public statements of the triumph of white supremacy over both the ex-slaves and the southern whites who had allied with the Republican Party, which was a lot more people than you think. The civil rights historian Timothy Tyson discusses this in the context of his home state of North Carolina, where the wingnut state legislature has passed a bill that the governor signed called the Mandatory Confederate Monuments Act that would require the state legislature to approve the removal of these statues, which of course in full right-wing extremist North Carolina is not going to happen.
White North Carolinians erected the vast majority of our Confederate monuments – 82 out of 98 – after 1898, decades after the Civil War ended. More importantly, they built the monuments after the white supremacy campaigns had seized power by force and taken the vote from black North Carolinians. The monuments reflected that moment of white supremacist ascendency as much as they did the Confederate legacy.
Take the Confederate monument on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, better known as “Silent Sam.” The speaker at its dedication in 1913, industrialist Julian S. Carr, bragged that he had “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because … she had publicly insulted … a Southern lady.” Carr’s speech heralded the “Anglo-Saxon race in the South” reunited with white supremacy as the glue.
In the 1890s, white Populists and black Republicans forged an interracial “Fusion” alliance in North Carolina that won both houses of the legislature, two U.S. Senate seats and the governorship. These homegrown Fusionists launched the most daring and democratic experiment in Southern political history.
The interracial Fusion coalition never lost at the polls in an honest election. But in the 1898 election, its enemies turned to violence, intimidation and fraud to steal the election outright. Former Confederate Alfred Waddell declared: “If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks.” White mobs in the streets of Wilmington beat and killed black citizens and overthrew the city government at gunpoint. This coup was the capstone of the 1898 “white supremacy campaign.”
Two years later, the white supremacy campaign again resorted to extralegal measures and elected Gov. Charles B. Aycock. Aycock said afterward, “We have ruled by force, we have ruled by fraud, but we want to rule by law.” They passed a constitutional amendment that took the vote away from black North Carolinians. Afterward they built a one-party, whites-only apartheid regime. This was the Jim Crow social order that persisted for six decades, until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s gave birth to a better South.
Tyson goes onto to discuss his own ancestor who avoided the Confederate draft, yet the Confederate heritage group keep festooning his grave with Confederate flags. I’m sure they just assume that someone of his generation supported the Confederacy, but this man was a unionist. That’s part of the battle. North Carolina conservatives are fighting a quiet race war that has many facets that include finding ways to stop black people from voting, creating myths around white solidarity in the past and present, and preserving monuments erected as symbols of white supremacy. Because these people still believe in that white supremacy, they don’t want them taken down today, no matter how offensive.