Why Confederate Monuments Differ From the Flag

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As the debate over the Confederate flag continues, the conversation has broadened to include whether or not other Confederate symbols – such as monuments – have a place in the public sphere. People are questioning whether the same arguments against displaying the flag in such spaces should also hold true for monuments. 

Despite the public discord, however, our options are not quite as stark as “do nothing” or “tear down all the Confederate monuments.” Context is important as these conversations move forward. Though flags and monuments are both powerful cultural symbols, there are important distinctions. 

As Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts recently argued in The Atlantic, flags are symbols of governmental authority. Flying the Confederate flag from a statehouse or a courthouse, they point out, implies official state sanction of the stated aims of the Confederate government – preserving slavery and upholding white supremacy – and the intentions of segregationists who began flying the flag above Southern statehouses in the early 1960s as a symbol of massive resistance to desegregation.

Though some monuments – particularly those that stand on statehouse grounds – bear some imprimatur of state authority, most stand on ground that is distinctly historical in nature – battlefields – or not directly associated with government authority – parks, town squares, and university campuses. These monuments are testimony to their creators’ desire not only to honor their ancestors and the cause for which they fought, but to shape the historical memory of future generations. By placing monuments extolling the courage and sense of duty of Confederate soldiers and the constitutional integrity and moral uprightness of the Confederate cause in public spaces, they hoped to ensure that these themes would continue to dominate future generations’ understanding of the war. 

The fact that monuments were (and continue to be) carefully crafted to send messages to both present and future generations makes them powerful teaching tools. They are windows into the period in which they were dedicated. Destroying these memorials would erase important evidence of the way that history – and not just in the South – has been interpreted to justify oppression and uphold white supremacy. Removing monuments would also rob us of an opportunity to understand the multifaceted motivations of previous generations and discuss history in all its complexity and contradiction. 

At Gettysburg National Military Park, the Confederate state memorials dedicated during the Civil War Centennial (1961-1965) provide a remarkable platform for talking with visitors about the connections between Civil War memory, the Cold War, and the civil rights movement. During the 1963 battle anniversary, speakers used these monuments as springboards for encouraging a wide range of actions in the present: from stiffening resistance to the federal government’s hesitant attempts to enforce civil rights law to dismantling discrimination in all its forms to honoring the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg by accepting responsibility for transforming American race relations in order to keep the United States safe and its position in the world respected. 

Confederate monuments tell us a great deal about how soldiers and subsequent generations of white Southerners wanted their cause to be remembered, and for that reason should be used as launching pads for conversations that approach issues of social inequality and racial justice through a historical lens. 

That said, it is also important for 21st-century Americans to confront what the symbols and images adorning the monuments mean to us – and to our neighbors – today. Confederate monuments can and should be re-appropriated, contextualized through interpretive signage and educational programs, and where it is appropriate, combatted with counter-monuments and art installations that turn the historical monologue of the monuments into a dialogue with the 21st-century communities surrounding them. For example, a monument standing in a town square might be reframed through an evening art installation projecting images of civil rights protesters marching through the same square onto its granite backdrop. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will be appropriate in all circumstances. Not only does each monument have its own unique history and reason for being, each community has its own distinctive – and frequently contentious – relationship to these symbols of Confederate heritage.  

As the current debate surrounding the Confederate flag turns from conversation to action, we need to be mindful of these distinctions between flags and monuments and avoid taking the route of bulldozing – rather than engaging with – a past that makes us uncomfortable. If our goal is to push beyond symbolism to truly confront the continuing racial, cultural, and economic divisions in our society, we will need an honest reckoning of our past to build upon.

This article originally omitted a citation to a June 25, 2015 piece in The Atlantic, “Take Down the Confederate Flags, But Not the Monuments.” 

Jill Ogline Titus, associate director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, studies the link between African-American history and public memory.

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