Have you ever noticed that when driving through the southern United States you are hard pressed to find a city or town without a memorial to the Confederate war dead, but you are equally hard-pressed to find a city or town with a monument commemorating fallen Revolutionary War soldiers?
Given the current debate over the removal of Confederate monuments, it might be useful to consider why so much effort has been made to honor traitors who died fighting a losing war against the United States, while so little effort is made to honor patriots who died winning America’s independence.
A simple fact, long shrouded by the mist of deceit, explains why traitorous villains have been honored while heroic patriots were ignored.
In the decades following the Civil War, there was an extraordinary effort by large numbers of white women through the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) to bolster and maintain white supremacy in the South and in the nation. In order to do this, they needed to create a narrative that characterized the Confederate rebellion as a “just cause.”
Key to perpetuating the myth of the just cause of slaveholding Southerners was the double-barreled argument combining the notions of the “Noble South,” where kindly masters cared for their adoring slaves, and the “Lost Cause,” — in which valiant Southern men rose to defend their liberties against an aggressive, greedy Northern industrial complex. Using this logic, the Southern rebellion was characterized as both “noble” and “just” but resulting in tragic heroes fallen in battle and a victimized Southern white populace. The shorthand for this narrative was projected as the “Lost Cause of the Noble South.”
This twisted myth also gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan, celebrated by the UDC as protectors of the white race.
Because of its activities since the Civil War, the UDC currently is considered by the Southern Poverty Law Center as part of the Neo-Confederate movement. And noted historians have considered the UDC to be an advocacy group for white supremacy. But the efforts of these women were so successful that hero worship of the Southern traitors spread into the North.
Not only do eight of the 11 former Confederate states have counties named in honor of Robert E. Lee, but the U.S. Navy named a submarine after him in 1960.
Not only are there roughly 223 public spaces with Confederate monuments in Virginia, a bust of Robert E. Lee and a statue of Stonewall Jackson also were in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at the Bronx Community College in New York City until their removal in August 2017.
In the U.S. Capitol building of the very nation that Robert E. Lee sought to destroy, his statue stands in Statuary Hall where each state is allowed to place statues of two of its most beloved citizens. In 1909, Virginia chose Lee.
The victory of the UDC in the propaganda war has been almost complete for decades. The organization was able to sway American sentiment to revere traitors and enslavers as heroes of American democracy. However, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
In 2018, the governor of Florida signed legislation to replace the statue of Confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith in Statuary Hall in the national Capitol with one of the famous African-American educator and civil rights advocate, Mary McLeod Bethune. And this year, Arkansas’ governor signed legislation to replace its Statuary Hall statues of Confederate loyalist, Uriah Milton Rose and white supremacist James Paul Clarke with those of musician Johnny Cash and civil rights activist Daisy Lee Bates.
North Carolina and Alabama also have begun removing white supremacists from Statuary Hall.
Confederate statues also have been removed from public spaces throughout the South, including cities in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Virginia would be wise to follow suit.
Racism and white supremacy are not going away anytime soon. And as long as organizations like the UDC are around, eliminating these cancers from the American body politic will be difficult and painful.
Nine states of the former Confederacy still celebrate holidays commemorating the attempt to destroy the nation in order to maintain slavery and white supremacy.
Many white individuals continue to disrespect African Americans and downplay the blistering harm caused by centuries of slavery and racism. This was made clear when a racially insensitive photo was discovered on Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam’s medical school yearbook page. The photo shows one individual in blackface standing next to another individual in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.
Gov. Northam first apologized for the photo, but the next day denied knowing anything about it. He finally promised to make amends for the episode by pursuing racial reconciliation in the state; but so far, he has done nothing of substance and his actions attest to the contamination of mind and spirit fostered by the UDC during the past century and a half.
Maintaining statues to traitors and clowning around in blackface evidence a lack of good faith on the part white southerners. None of this blackface clowning is funny. Nothing about slavery in the South was noble. None of it is deserving of being honored.
Gov. Northam, like many white Southerners, promises to do better, yet Robert E. Lee’s statue still stands in Statuary Hall in our national Capitol.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.