White supremacists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, and other far-right individuals gathered in Virginia on Aug. 11 and 12 under the guise of protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Why is the removal so controversial? According to conservative pundits, the removal of statues of Confederate figures like Lee (and slave-owning Confederate hero Stonewall Jackson who, President Donald Trump noted on Aug. 15, is "next" in line for destruction) is akin to erasing history.
President Trump even tweeted on Aug. 17, "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!" He lamented "the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks."
And the Lee statue in Charlottesville, it seems, is at the center of this controversy. So what makes this statue such a lightning rod for controversy? Are activists really trying to erase history?
The weekend of August 11 and 12 is not the first time the statue was in the spotlight.
Nor was it the first time far-right protesters gathered in Charlottesville on behalf of Lee.
According to the New York Times, people have called for the removal of the statue, which is seen by many as a symbol of oppression, as early as 2012. Calls for the removal have been met with disapproval, accusations of "sowing division" and factually inaccurate assertions that Lee himself did not own slaves, and was simply a proponent of states' rights.
Charlottesville City Counselor Kristin Szakos said, “You would have thought I had asked if it was OK to torture puppies."
After forming a commission in March 2016 to discuss the removal of the statue, Charlottesville City Council ultimately voted in February 2017 to remove and sell the statue. Charlottesville's decision to act is part of the reason it has been a target for far-right activity.
In response to the vote, "alt-right" leader and white supremacist Richard Spencer led a protest march in May. Wielding torches and chanting racist slogans such as, "All white lives matter," and "No more brother wars," the message was clear: remove these statues, remove a symbol of our power as white people.
A judge issued an injunction in May, only days after Spencer's march, temporarily halting the removal of the statue.
But the court case has not yet been decided -- hence August's follow-up march.
Both the May and August rallies featured chants of "You will not replace us."
That is vital to understanding the undercurrent of protests like these. If Spencer and his ilk are equating the removal of white supremacist symbols to being replaced, they are equating themselves with white supremacy, the ultimate symbol of which is the American enslavement of Africans.
Similarly, chants of "No more brother wars" make it clear that Spencer and co. do not see the Civil War as a matter of deciding the fate of slavery, but as an attempt to rip white, European descendants apart as part of an ongoing campaign of attempted white genocide.
You can't talk about Charlottesville without understanding the history of these monuments -- and the Civil War.
Continued calls to remove not only the Charlottesville statue, but statues like it, and Confederate flags, have grown increasingly loud in the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and more black Americans at the hands of police officers.
For white supremacists like Richard Spencer, the removal of these statues is akin to erasing white identity. But, really, removing these statues is closer to just not venerating symbols of white supremacy. To many activists, both the statues and the disproportionate number of deaths of black Americans at the hands of police are symbols of white supremacy.
First: a refresher on Robert E. Lee.
Lee was a slave-owning Confederate General (who was reportedly quite cruel to his slaves). He resigned from the Union army in order to fight for Virginia, his home state, and his likeness is seen as a symbol of Confederate pride. He's been quoted as saying that slavery is a great "moral & political evil" as a defense, and many argue that he was a states' rights advocate, but Lee's position, and that quote, is often taken out of context. The full quote reads:
The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.
In other words: he thought that, while slavery was morally reprehensible for white Christians, it was beneficial, and even divined by God himself to "help" these slaves. That is literally the definition of white supremacy.
Hey wait, wasn't the Civil War about states' rights?
Along with the historical rewriting of Lee as an anti-slavery gentleman, erecting the Confederate statues themselves, the states' rights argument is part of an attempt to rewrite the history of the Civil War as "righteous" and "justified" -- and it is an essential aspect of understanding why white supremacists like Spencer hold Confederate statues in high regard.
Secession was about states' rights -- to own slaves. South Carolina, the first state to secede, wrote in their 1860 declaration of secession, "But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations." Four of the 11 Confederate states mentioned slavery in their secession declarations; the Constitution of the Confederate States of America mentioned slavery roughly 10 times.
And these statues are not meant to remind us of how awful slavery was.
Only weeks after Spencer's initial May march on Charlottesville, self-styled progressive Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post arguing that the statue should stay as a reminder of the atrocities committed in the name of the Confederacy and slavery -- the same argument being peddled by Trump and several prominent conservative talking heads.
Contrary to the arguments of people such as Charlottesville Mayor Signer, however, these statues were not erected to remind us that history must never be repeated.
In fact, many of these statues were erected in the 20th century, right around the start of Jim Crow. They were symbols meant to intimidate black people and remind them of their rightful place. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) put together a handy visual to show when the lion's share of these statues were erected. The Charlottesville Lee statue, for example, was erected in 1924. There are Confederate monuments as far west as Seattle, which has a 1926 monument erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy. Washington wouldn't become a state until 1889 -- over 20 years after the Civil War ended.
Historian Karen L. Cox echoed this sentiment in the Washington Post on Aug. 16. Most monuments were erected between 1895 and World War I, coinciding with Jim Crow. Some were erected as late as the civil rights era. She writes,
They were part of a campaign to paint the Southern cause in the Civil War as just and slavery as a benevolent institution, and their installation came against a backdrop of Jim Crow violence and oppression of African Americans. The monuments were put up as explicit symbols of white supremacy.
So, of course white supremacists want to protect these statues.
When white supremacists gather to protest the removal of these statues, they're protesting the removal of symbols of overt white supremacy.
So when people call for the removal of these monuments, they're not trying to erase history or run away from it. They're trying to dismantle objects meant to terrorize.
The terror behind these monuments is one of the reasons why protesters toppled a Confederate monument outside of a courthouse in Durham, North Carolina. It's why Baltimore quietly removed four Confederate statues in the dead of night.
It's why, when black Americans say that these statues are symbols of oppression, we should listen.
We have a long way to go, but toppling these terrifying symbols of white supremacy is a start.