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Like The Flag, Confederate Monuments Have Been 'Severely Tainted'


The controversy over the protests in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend has renewed debate about the hundreds of Confederate monuments and statues scattered across the nation, especially in the South. But there's a lot you may not know about these Confederate symbols and how they came to be. To find out more about the history of the monuments, we called up James Cobb, history professor at the University of Georgia. I started off by asking him about the timing of when these monuments started going up.

JAMES COBB: Well, the great bulk of them were erected between roughly 1890 and 1920. But every time there was a sort of a racial flare up, later on, there would be a more modest surge in erecting monuments in the same way that Confederate flags started going on. State flags are being flown atop state capitals, but the 1890-1920 period is really, I think, critical because that period also saw the rise of legally mandated racial segregation and disfranchisement of black Southerners.

And in tune with that, the campaigns for passage of these segregation, disenfranchising laws involved a tremendous amount of horrific racial scapegoating. So that same period saw roughly 2,000 lynchings of black Americans. And so the thing I think people miss because it's so easy to jump on the clear connection between these monuments and slavery is that they also were sort of like construction materials in an effort to rebuild slavery.

BROWN: Professor, we've heard lots about the memorials that celebrate the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee. Tell us about some of the other lesser-known monuments that are also creating controversy today.

COBB: Well, short of Lee, nobody has more monuments than Stonewall Jackson. I know that monuments to Jackson are under fire in a couple places, as, of course, are monuments to Jefferson Davis, who, strictly speaking, not a lesser figure than Lee, since he was actually president of the Confederacy, but Davis was not nearly so revered as Lee and not a very popular figure. And probably the single most common monument is just a sort of a generic monument to the Confederate fighting man, who is not identified but just sort of symbolic of the large number of white Southerners who were part of this crusade.

BROWN: Professor Cobb, let's fast forward to more of present day in the modern era debate, really, actually heated up after the horrific mass killing of nine black worshipers at the Emanuel AME Church. That was back in 2015. And then images of the killer posing with a Confederate flag made then-governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, caused her to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds. It also seemed to fuel some debate, but it wasn't quite as controversial as the debate around taking down monuments has become today. Why do you think there's more debate?

COBB: Well, I think for generations, white Southerners had maintained, despite the presence of the flag at all of these racial atrocities, had maintained that it was possible to separate heritage and hate. And I think the slaying in Charleston pretty much shattered what was left of that mythology. And there were a number of cases, a number of states, where Confederate flags were furled almost, you know, within a matter of days of that event. The next target was going to be monuments. But compared to a flag, the monuments are a bit less emotive. And they were seen like as on the second line of defense as far as the whole cult of the lost cause and the refusal to accept the idea that both the flag and the monuments were tied to slavery.

Monuments were simply less closely associated in the minds of white Southerners, in particular, with anything related directly to racial oppression. It was the flag that had been waved at the Klan rallies. You know, it's easier to hoist a flag than a bust of Stonewall Jackson. It had the much stronger visual association with racial oppression or racist hate groups than monuments did.

And then, of course, you get into the whole cult of Robert E. Lee. Lee died in 1870, and he already had the breeding and the manners and the reputation of someone who would just make a superb icon. He was the face of the whole lost cause crusade that spilled out into this profusion of Confederate monuments. I think in the case of Lee, he was truly embraced. You know, the whole country basically - the white people in the rest of the country, they bought into the whole lost cause ethos hook, line and sinker.

The Northern newspapers, magazines were full of stories and essays about the bravery of the Confederate lads who fought against innumerable odds to defend a cause they thought was righteous. And Robert E. Lee was touted as one of the superb - most superb examples of American manhood that the country had ever produced. And Dwight Eisenhower had a portrait of Lee in the Oval Office.

BROWN: Professor Cobb, talk about the issue of removing these monuments. Supporters, they say that removing them is the same as erasing history and this is a slippery slope.

COBB: Well, as a historian, I'll confess to a certain nervousness about sanitizing the historical landscape. But I think what we're looking at here is that these monuments, just like the flag, have been sort of seized on. And they've been so severely tainted. I think the best way to look at them upon removing them - and I think they do have to be removed from public spaces.

But I think the best way to look at them is that they're not being preserved in a museum, which is where I think they should go as a monument, but really, as an artifact because their connection with, you know, the effort to practically reinstitute slavery after the Civil War gives them an extra layer of complexity that I think most people have not been exposed to. Whereas they - in a public spot, I think they can only be divisive and a source of discord and conflict.

BROWN: James Cobb is professor emeritus of history at the University of Georgia. Thank you for speaking with us today.

COBB: Oh, I was delighted. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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