Confederate Monuments, Union-Busting, and the Polarization of American History
Thanks to everyone who took part in Sunday evening’s book discussion group. We discussed Erin Thompson’s book, Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments. It was a lively discussion and overall the group appeared to have learned a lot about this controversial subject.
I enjoyed having the opportunity to read through the book again. As I pointed out during our discussion, I had a very different reaction to the book that I think has a lot to do with the extent to which the debate has cooled down over the past year or so.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about the book is the way Thompson broadens our understanding of the subject is by examining public monuments that go beyond the Civil War. The other aspect of it that I value—even more so in this more recent reading—is that way she forces the reader to look beyond the narrow subject of race.
All too often, the debate surrounding Confederate monuments has been framed entirely by race. How many times have we been told that Confederate monuments were dedicated with no other purpose than oppressing Black Americans? The argument groups monuments around one category regardless of the time in which they were dedicated and overshadows the rich histories of individual monuments.
No one can rightfully deny or even minimize the importance of white supremacy and the memory of slavery in the postwar South as salient factors in interpreting these monuments, but in doing so we run the risk of simplifying this history.
Thompson provides a wonderful example of this in her discussion of the dedication of the Confederate monument in Birmingham, Alabama in 1894 and 1903.
In 1894 Black and white workers, who joined the United Mine Workers, were on the verge of striking in and around Birmingham. Though the city was not incorporated until after the Civil War, city leaders believed that a monuments might help in destroying this interracial alliance as part of an anti-union campaign.
The dedication of the monument’s foundation took place just five days after the UMW began a nationwide strike.
The leaders of Birmingham who spoke at the monument’s unveiling did not mention the strike explicitly. But their speeches emphasized the difference between white and Black Alabamians. The owner of a local newspaper, who also commanded Alabama’s Sons of Confederate Veterans, explained that Birmingham’s white citizens had sprung from the seed of a race of Confederates planted by ‘the blood of martyrs.’ The image of an unbroken white line was reinforced by the mementos sealed inside a copper box in the monument’s cornerstone, including ‘a baby shoe belonging to the son of a son of a Confederate soldier.’
The speakers did not ignore the hardships faced by Birmingham’s white workers. The commander in chief of the United Confederate Veterans acknowledged how ‘discouraged and cast down’ his audience must feel when ‘mortgages and debts have pressed upon [you].’ But he urged them to think about the Civil War when they felt discouraged, so they could ‘rejoice that there is a country where honor is first, not wealth; where patriotic endeavor and duty are everything, riches only a secondary consideration.’ In other words: when their wages were cut, they should have thought about the Confederacy instead of unionization. (pp. 126-27)
Later that year the Populist Party’s candidate for governor lost and the strike was defeated.
It was not until 1905 that city leaders decided to complete the monument, once again in response to a looming strike of white and Black United Mine Workers.
Again, the speeches at the ceremony instructed white audience members to value racial allegiance over financial security. One speaker insisted that the monument would remind Birmingham’s citizens about the ‘pious aspirations of duty’ toward the Confederacy’s ‘sublime and unparalleled history.’ He lamented that this duty was too often neglected ‘in the conflicts and competitions of industrial development,’ which caused ‘the nobler sentiments of our nature to sink unheeded and forgotten into the great vortex of money.’ Another speaker criticized those who in their ‘blind rush for material power and prosperity’ did not emulate Confederate soldiers’ ‘devotion to duty and patient service.’ ….
In his speech, [Mayor William] Drennan acknowledged that Birmingham had come into existence only after the Civil War. He took that as a point in Birmingham’s favor. The city, he told his audience of Confederate veterans, was made up of people ‘from all sections of the United States.’ But ‘whether they were born in the North, South, East, or West, all with one accord recognize your courage and devotion to the cause for which you fought.’
Drennan’s claim that everyone in Birmingham unquestionably honored the Confederate cause was ridiculous. For one thing, nearly 40 percent of the city’s residents were Black. Drennan was not talking to them. Their political power had been shackled by Alabama’s new constitution. He could ignore them, and even pretend that they were not present in the city—as long as he could persuade white Alabamians to abandon their alliance with them.
Drennan’s praises of the veterans contained a veiled threat. Anyone who did join in these praises—anyone who crossed the racial lines the Confederates had died to uphold—would vanish from his recognition, just as Birmingham’s Black residents already had. The mayor’s appeal to the Confederacy worked. The strike died. Organized labor would not gain another foothold in Alabama for more than a generation. (pp. 128-29)
Birmingham’s story doesn’t fit neatly into the current framing of the history and ongoing controversy surrounding Confederate monuments.
But it’s not simply a more nuanced understanding of history that I am interested in, but about how our approach to interpreting the past can potentially transcend what have become deeply-entrenched and largely artificial boundaries.
Discussion and debate about American history among the general public is now largely about the significance of dates such as 1619 or 1776 and which one you most closely identify with. Do you believe that white supremacy is baked into the foundation of the United States, into its very DNA or do you believe our nation’s foundational creed is based solely on freedom and equality.
These questions frame American history as a false choice encouraged by people who are primarily interested in maximizing followers (both virtual and real) rather than finding ways to encourage people to think more deeply and critically about history.
More problematic is the way in which such questions and framings reinforce artificial divisions among people. The result is that there is little or no room in which to find common ground even though there is plenty of evidence that such common ground exists.
Unfortunately, it has infected not only how we talk about Civil War monuments, but even more importantly, how we talk about history education in our public schools. Activists on both sides of the political spectrum are wedded to the their respective views of American history—views that are equally reductionist in their framing—and the result is a gradual withering away of any potential common ground.
And around and around we go.
Civil War Memory is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.