Possibly alone among God’s creatures, we humans saturate the physical landscape with intentional displays of moral meaning. These constructed moral declarations are part of how we name ourselves. They cry out to the living and the unborn: “This is who we are, where we stand, and how we aim to be remembered.” Examples of these physical prayers include monuments, museums, flags, memorial windows, murals, roadside and other historical markers, and of course the names we choose and re-choose over time for our streets and highways, schools and universities, parks, libraries, government buildings, sports teams and mascots, lakes and reservoirs, bridges, airports, and much else.
I recently spent ten days driving around the Deep South—Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia—looking at these moral markers and talking to people about them. My tour was anything but scientific, but anecdotes are to scientific data what piers are to bridges: sometimes they develop from the former into the latter. We’ll focus first on the Lost Cause and then on the Beloved Community, so we’ll move in time from the Civil War of the 1860s to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Let’s start with Confederate monuments. Particularly after this past August’s violent protest and counter-protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, ostensibly about city’s plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from the recently re-christened Emancipation Park—the former name was Lee Park—many pundits across the nation weighed in on the subject of Confederate monuments. Most commentators took one stance or its opposite in a simple choice between “keep them” and “get rid of them.” It took me several days of driving around to abandon this way of thinking.
Goodness knows these memorials to the Lost Cause seem to be nearly everywhere in the South. This ubiquity itself creates cultural meaning. A college professor in Johnson City, Tennessee, usefully put it to me this way:
The sheer number of monuments is such a forceful presence, forming a public identity that can negate other identities. So consideration of individual monuments can’t be separated from the meaning of the aggregate.
As a nearly life-long Civil War buff, I’ve studied and loved Civil War monuments for decades, including those in my native South. Growing up in Mississippi, it was and (I admit) remains curiously moving to know that in nearly every county seat in the state on can find, usually less than a block from the First Baptist Church, a county courthouse in the lawn of which is a stately Confederate statue. It is usually a lone Confederate soldier atop a tall shaft, frequently displaying a florid inscription in praise of those who served and died for the Confederate States of America.
Here’s one of the tributes (the words come from Jefferson Davis) inscribed on the Monument to Women of the Confederacy in Jackson, Mississippi, honoring the women:
Whose pious ministrations to our wounded soldiers soothed the last hours of those who died far from the objects of their tenderest love, whose domestic labors contributed much to supply the wants of our defenders in the field, whose zealous faith in our cause shone a guiding star undimmed by the darkest clouds of war, whose fortitude sustained them under all the privations to which they were subjected, whose floral tribute annually expresses their enduring love and reverence for our sacred dead; and whose patriotism will teach their children to emulate the deeds of our revolutionary sires.
As an historian, this language fascinates me. As a Southerner, it both attracts and dismays me. As a human being, it moves me deeply.
At the same time, my recent drive-around changed my thinking about these memorials. I’m now more doubtful of their worth, for three reasons.
First, as my friend from Tennessee notes, there are simply too many of them saying too many confrontational things in too many prominent places. As the centerpieces of what was, from the 1870s through the 1910s, an astonishingly comprehensive and successful South-wide campaign to memorialize the Lost Cause, Confederate monuments as a group convey an essentially state-endorsed creed: “This is who we are.” But of course, that’s not true.
Confederate monuments are not who “we” are. There have always been what the historian Charles Reagan Wilson of the University of Mississippi calls “many Souths,” not just one, and certainly not just one Southern “we” consisting of white citizens wishing to glorify the Lost Cause.1 No one group or cause or memory, no matter how significant, can define the South. Here, too, in my Father’s house are many rooms.
The second cause of my growing doubt about the monuments concerns one of the main defenses mounted on their behalf. These monuments, their defenders say, are primarily ways for (white) Southerners to honor their dead and remember their history and heritage. But of course, that’s not quite right.
The great majority of early Confederate monuments, unveiled from the 1870s through the early 1880s were located in cemeteries. Usually sponsored by local ladies memorial associations, they were more about mourning the dead than perpetuating a cause. Their emotional appeal is typically more somber and private than aggressive and political. An inscription on the Monument to the Gettysburg Dead (unveiled 1875) located in the Laurel Grove Cemetery of Savannah, Georgia, says:
On Fame’s eternal camping ground,
Their silent tents are spread,
And glory guards, with silence round,
The bivouac of the Dead.
But by the 1890s, owing largely to the labors of the new patriotic groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the location of new monuments had shifted largely from cemeteries to courthouses, state houses, and public thoroughfares and parks, just as the new monuments’ emotional appeal—their aesthetics and poetic inscriptions—had shifted from funerary feelings of grief to political myth-making expressed with nearly religious fervor.
Most of all, these later monuments insist on the moral rightness of the Southern cause. The message is not subtle. A Confederate monument I visited in Greenville, South Carolina, says:
All lost, but by the graves where martyred heroes rest, he wins the most who honor saves. Success is not the test. The world shall yet decide in truth’s clear far off light, that the soldiers who wore the gray and died with Lee were in the right.
You want vigilance ever-lasting? The same monument proclaims that the fallen soldiers of Greenville County are “resting at last in that glorious land, where the white flag of peace is never furled.” Any questions about what these words mean?
If so, perhaps they can be answered by Mrs. Lizzie Pollard, the first president of the Southern Memorial Association of Fayetteville, Arkansas. In 1904, she stated:
These monuments we build will speak their message to unborn generations. These voiceless marbles in their majesty will stand as vindicators of the Confederate soldier. They will lift from these brave men the opprobrium of rebel, and stand them in the line of patriots. This is not alone a labor of love, it is a work of duty as well. We are correcting history.2
The third cause of my change of heart concerns a difficult moral question: Can there be beauty in devotion to a flawed cause? For me, the answer is yes. I believe that slavery was morally unacceptable. I believe that Southern leaders in the 1850s were foolish, arrogant, and irrationally aggrieved. I believe that attempting to secede from the Union was a tragic mistake. I’m glad the North won that terrible war.
But do I see beauty in Robert E. Lee, who led an army whose purpose I detest? I do. Do I see nobleness in Southern women who (as one monument tells it) “loved their land because it was their own, and scorned to seek another reason why”? I do, even as I believe that loving my land because it’s mine, and scorning to seek another reason why, is morally wrong and dangerous. I believe that it’s possible and can be part of a good life to honor one’s forbears’ bravery, stamina, and commitment without favoring their political ideology.
But here’s the catch: As we’ve seen, the most visible and important of the Confederate monuments do not purport to honor brave people who fought for a doubtful cause. Quite the opposite: The builders of these monuments, along with those who controlled the prominent sites on which they are located, created a style of public memorialization blending remembrance and sacralized political defiance such that the two feelings become inseparably one.
For me, that’s a source of both curiosity and, increasingly, remorse. I am eager to remember those who died with compassion and understanding. But I resist with all the powers available to me being complicit in a public endorsement of the cause for which they died.
No nation rose so pure and fair,
None fell, so pure of crime.
– Inscription on a Confederate monument in Augusta, Georgia
The white South’s intense memorialization of the Lost Cause occurred more than a century ago. And no memorialization, not even this one, can become frozen in time. Memorialization happens, but so does de-memorialization.
Consider one window through which to observe these processes. The United Daughters of the Confederacy is more responsible than any other group for the Confederate monuments we see today. A century ago, the group reportedly had about 70,000 members. A perusal of the minutes of their 1917 national convention, held in Chattanooga, Tennessee, suggests a highly energetic, grassroots, volunteer-led organization dedicated to waging a comprehensive campaign to honor the Confederate dead, support Confederate veterans, vindicate Confederate history, and defend and advance the Confederate cause.
The scope of the Daughters’ 1917-18 activities is breathtaking. They are completing Confederate monuments, including an unveiling in Shiloh, Tennessee—“I wish every one of you could have attended the unveiling. The day was as perfect a day as ever dawned. . . . It was the greatest day in the history of the park. Conservative estimates placed the crowd at 12,000 . . .”—and raising funds for the recently deceased artist who created the Confederate monument in Arlington, Virginia, to be buried there. They are sponsoring a memorial window honoring women of the Confederacy—“the noble mothers of the ‘sixties . . . [who] gave their gallant sons to their country”—to be placed in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. They are petitioning for highways to be renamed for Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, and supporting the creation of a school to be named for Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederacy.
They are also successfully lobbying publishers and public schools to replace current history textbooks with “histories that are fair to the South.” They are sending photographs of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee for display in public schools. They are nurturing a national auxiliary group for young people called Children of the Confederacy. They are lobbying the U.S. Congress to refund to the Southern states the taxes on cotton collected by the Federal Government from 1862 to 1868, on the grounds that the taxes were collected illegally. They are passing resolutions to condemn the “hate song” called “Marching Through Georgia,” urging the song’s “suppression and elimination in all schools on all occasions, both public and private.”
In convention plenary sessions they are singing “Dixie” (a song Abraham Lincoln loved) and “Old Black Mammy’s Comin’ Home.” They are collecting books for a Confederate Library. They are creating a poetry and a literature of the Confederacy, including a “Catechism for Children” focusing on the war and Reconstruction. They are sponsoring children’s and university-level essay contests on the Confederacy. They are awarding Southern Crosses of Honor (the award’s motto is Fortes Creantur Fortibus / “The Brave Beget the Brave”) to worthy Confederate veterans. They are lobbying for the term “Civil War” to be replaced by “War Between the States,” since, as one UDC leader put it, “calling it a ‘Civil War’ is a complete surrender of the basic principle upon which that war was waged, the right of self-government . . .”
And much more. Through it all runs great ambition and remarkably intense devotion to the Cause. One of the convention’s opening addresses, delivered by Mrs. A. A. Campbell of Wytheville, Virginia, reports that “after more than half a century of reflection, [we] are still convinced that the men who followed Lee, Jackson, Johnston and our other immortals, fought for the liberties secured to them by the Federal Constitution.”3
Today the United Daughters of the Confederacy has about 20,000 members. Compared to a century ago, it’s not doing much, and what it does seems more quaint and anachronistic than fiery and revisionist. Their long-term decline in both membership and zeal is probably as good a marker as any for what Charles Reagan Wilson calls “the de-memorialization of the Lost Cause.”
In the twelve months since the Charlottesville violence alone, about thirty Confederate monuments, mostly in the South, have been removed or relocated, and many more have become subjects of controversy. The day before I visited Richmond, Virginia, in part to see the massive Confederate statues along Monument Avenue, the statue of Robert E. Lee on the Avenue had been spray-painted with the letters “BLM,” for Black Lives Matter. In Greenville, South Carolina, I visited the Museum and Library of Confederate History, operated by the local Sons of Confederate Veterans, and during the hour or so my family and I were there, we were the only visitors. In short, with each passing year, Confederate memorialization occupies a less dominant and less secure portion of the Southern landscape.
And what’s replacing it? The memorialization of the Beloved Community. Across the South, with an intensity that resembles the intensity of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in their heyday, the sons and daughters of the 1960s civil rights movement are remaking the landscape to honor their (now mostly fallen) heroes and endorse the moral rightness of their cause.
Today in Birmingham, Alabama, you can visit, as I did, the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument (unveiled 1905) in a park near the Jefferson County Courthouse. But you can also visit, as I did, beautiful civil rights memorials located in the four-acre Kelly Ingram Park (repurposed 1992) adjacent to the 16thStreet Baptist Church. The church was bombed in 1963 by Ku Klux Klan members, resulting in the deaths of four African-American children and the injury of many other church members. The proposal to repurpose Ingram Park came from Richard Arrington, Jr., Birmingham’s first African-American mayor. (Today in Birmingham you can drive down Richard Arrington, Jr. Boulevard.)
Christened “A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation,” the park features a statue memorializing the four children (“Four Spirits”) killed in the church bombing. It also features statues of Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and other local pastors who were active in the movement. Additional monuments and plaques commemorate two anonymous African-American young people (the inscription says “I Ain’t Afraid”) and the students who, as civil rights demonstrators in 1963, were assaulted by the Birmingham police using dogs and firehoses. Across the street from the park is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (dedicated 1992) whose mission is “to enlighten each generation about civil and human rights.”
This same trend is present across the South. In Richmond, on the grounds of the State Capitol, you can visit a statue of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, the famous Confederate general (unveiled in 1875 before an estimated crowd of 40-50,000). But on those same grounds you can also visit the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial (unveiled in 2008) featuring eighteen statues of African-American high school students and others who fought to desegregate Virginia’s public schools in the 1950s (“It seemed like reaching for the moon”). Fittingly enough, perhaps, the memorial is located within yards of a statue of Harry F. Byrd, Sr., (unveiled in 1976), the former state governor and U.S. senator who led the political and grassroots effort (under the slogan “Massive Resistance”) to prevent the desegregation of Virginia’s schools in the 1950s.
Also in Richmond, you can also visit a prominently located statue honoring Maggie L. Walker (unveiled in 2017) who for decades led Richmond’s Independent Order of Saint Luke, a self-help society (their motto was “Succor and Employment for the Negro Woman”) and was the first African-American woman to serve as president of a bank. You can visit the nearby Maggie L. Walker High School. Several blocks away from the Walker statue, the latest statue to be erected on Monument Avenue, and the first to memorialize someone other than a Confederate hero, honors Arthur Ashe, the first world-famous African-American tennis player.
In Jackson, Mississippi, where I grew up, children for decades attended the Jefferson Davis Elementary School. No longer. Starting next year, the name will be the Barack Obama School.
When I was a child, Jackson’s airport was named after Allen C. Thompson, a former mayor whose views on racial issues were, shall we say, not advanced. Some years back, as African Americans began assuming political power (and as whites left the city), the name was changed to the Thompson-Evers Airport, curiously pairing Thompson’s name with that of Medgar W. Evers, the civil rights leader murdered in 1963 by a member of the White Citizen’s Council. But by 2004, the re-memorialization had been completed: Today the airport is called Jackson–Medgar W. Evers International Airport. Also, part of Highway 49 near Jackson is now called Medgar Evers Boulevard, along which you can find a library and statue memorializing Ever’s life.
Civil rights museums and Civil Rights Trails in the South are steadily multiplying. In Jackson, you can visit the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum (opened 2017). In Ruleville, Mississippi, you can visit the Fannie Lou Hamer Museum and Memorial Garden (dedicated 2008) (“She fought racism, injustice, and poverty”). Two of the most recent and important of these new institutions, the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, both in Montgomery, Alabama, and both dedicated in 2018, remember African Americans killed by lynching (the memorial) and victimized by enslavement and mass incarceration. (the museum).
Driving north on Highway 51 near Goodman, Mississippi, I noticed that the name of that portion of the highway had been changed to Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Highway. The next day, driving into Atlanta from the south, the first three boulevards I saw were named for Martin Luther King, Jr., Joseph E. Lowery (who succeeded Dr. King as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and Ralph David Abernathy (who succeeded Lowery). The next day, near Fredericksburg, Virginia, headed toward Jefferson Davis Highway, I drove across the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Bridge.
A 2015 survey published in the New York Times reports that, in the 11 former Confederate states, the name “Martin Luther King, Jr.” is associated 1,183 miles of roadway. The name “Jefferson Davis” is associated with 468 miles. For Robert E. Lee, the figure is 60 miles.4
There are similarities between the memorialization of the Lost Cause and the memorialization of the Beloved Community. Both of these campaigns honor their fallen. Both glorify their heroes. Both are suffused with moral and religious fervor. And both declare that their cause is right.
There are also dissimilarities. One movement occurred more than a century ago and peaked in the 1910s. The other is occurring today and seems not to have peaked yet. A second difference concerns political influence. The ideology of the Lost Cause achieved regional hegemony, occupying the commanding heights of Southern government and society. The ideology of the Beloved Community has not (at least yet) achieved anywhere near that level of influence.
The most important difference concerns divergent understandings of race. Both movements are deeply connected to racial issues—in one case, the enslavement of African Americans, and in the other, African Americans’ struggle for equal rights. At the same time, partisans of the Lost Cause addressed race primarily by ignoring it in favor of a focus on states’ rights and regional loyalty, while often augmenting that approach with overt displays of racism, whereas commitment to racial equality is the very essence of what animates partisans of the Beloved Community.
I ended my tour heartened and chastened. I’m heartened that more and more of the Southern landscape now memorializes the 1960s civil rights movement. It’s overdue, it’s a matter of simple justice, it reflects what’s best in our nation, and it makes me more hopeful about the region’s future. May this effort continue, as there’s much more to do.
I’m chastened because I now see that the Civil War monuments I grew up with should be removed from Southern courthouses, Capitol grounds, and public parks and thoroughfares. I’d like to see them relocated to cemeteries, those places of remembrance and honor initially chosen as sites for them by the ladies memorial associations of the 1870s and 1880s. Reuniting these physical tributes to the dead with the graves of the soldiers themselves and their descendants seems honorable, reverential, fitting for a multi-racial South, and properly public.
On my trip, one of my most cherished experiences was visiting a cemetery in Fredericksburg, Virginia. In 1866, the Ladies Memorial Association of Fredericksburg, seeking (in their words) to “rescue from oblivion the memory of the brave,” began amid the privations of the war’s aftermath to raise funds for the cemetery. After much effort and sacrifice, the cemetery was dedicated in 1870. It contains the graves of Confederate veterans who died in nearby battles (many “Unknown”) and others. In the middle of the cemetery, atop a grassy mound, is a 20-foot high monument (unveiled in 1884) featuring a standing Confederate soldier. The monument’s inscription is simple and moving:“To the Confederate Dead.” Visiting there, I remembered.
1. Charles Reagan Wilson, “Whose South?” Southern Cultures22, no. 4 (Winter 2016). Wilson also sheds light on the questions raised in this essay in Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (The University of Georgia Press, 1980).
2. Lizzie Pollard, “Southern Memorial Association, Fayetteville, Arkansas,” in History of the Confederate Memorial Associations of the South (Confederate Southern Memorial Association, 1904), 68.
3. Minutes of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (Richmond: Richmond Press, Inc., 1918), 298 (Shiloh unveiling), 328 (memorial window), 317 (history books), 82 (“Marching Through Georgia” and “Black Mammy’s Comin’ Home”), 320 (“Civil War”), 6 (“men who followed Lee”). See also (on cotton tax), Confederate Veteran 23, no. 5 (May 1915). For UDC membership, see Thomas H. Appleton, Jr. and Angela Boswell (eds.), Searching for their Place (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 187.
4. “Honors for Confederates, for Thousands of Miles,” New York Times, June 25, 2015.