One hundred and fifty-five years after Confederate troops surrendered at Appomattox and Bennett Place, their battle flag has finally come down in Mississippi and their statues are retreating from courthouse squares and university quads. As the children of generations of Black southerners who fought against the lies of the Lost Cause, we celebrate this most recent surrender and look forward to walking down streets that are not shadowed by monuments to men who claimed to own our ancestors. But we cannot understand why these monuments lasted so long without challenging the inequities they were erected to justify. In fact, many who support flags and statues coming down today also advocate voter suppression, attack healthcare and re-segregate our schools. We must attend to both the systems of injustice and the monuments that have justified them if we are to realize “liberty and justice for all”.
If you examine the bases of statues that are being hauled away, most bear a date between the 1890s and 1920s. These monuments did not rise in defiance of the federal troops who were sent by Congress and Ulysses S Grant to enforce Reconstruction and guarantee political power to the new Black citizens of the south in the 1860s and 1870s. If a statue of Robert E Lee or Jefferson Davis had been proposed during Reconstruction, the very suggestion would have sparked a riot. But after the compromise of 1876, when Rutherford B Hayes agreed to remove federal troops from the south, newly established Black and white political alliances were subjected to the violence of white terrorist organizations and the propaganda of white supremacy campaigns.
As Martin Luther King Jr taught on the steps of the Alabama state house in 1965: “To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society.” Black people were driven from public life and blamed for the troubles of a society that had invested its resources in treasonous rebellion against the United States. Jim Crow laws went on the books to offer a legal structure for the caste system that had built plantation wealth with enslaved labor. “If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” King said. “And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man.”
George White, the last Black congressman from the south during Reconstruction, finished his term representing North Carolina’s second congressional district in 1902. Five years later, the United Daughters of the Confederacy petitioned the University of North Carolina to erect a memorial to alumni who had fought for the Confederacy. With Jim Crow established, their cause was no longer lost. In the Jim Crow south, these veterans and their descendants celebrated the sacrifices their fathers and grandfathers had made to defend white supremacy. Before a cheering crowd of more than 1,000 people who gathered to dedicate their new Confederate Monument, Julian Carr recalled how “100 yards from where we stand, less than 90 days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a Negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 federal soldiers”. Like Confederate monuments in almost every southern community, this one was erected to celebrate that no federal authority was willing to challenge white supremacy.
After the Brown v Board of Education decision rendered Jim Crow unconstitutional in 1954, Black and white people in the civil rights movement worked tirelessly to demand federal enforcement of Reconstruction-era promises: Black citizenship, equal protection under the law and the right to vote. As in the moral struggle of the civil war, our parents and their colleagues risked their lives in non-violent struggle to make the promise of America real for all of her citizens. As Coretta Scott King said: “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.”
While the gains of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act transformed the horizon of possibility for millions of Americans, the Second Reconstruction’s work of establishing a genuine multiethnic democracy was not completed before calls for “law and order”, “traditional values” and a tax revolt rallied a Confederate resistance once again. By uniting white voters in the suburbs, the sun belt, and the south, the Southern Strategy promised white people political power in an increasingly diverse America for the next 50 years.
While the divisive politics of Trumpism may be the last gasp of the Southern Strategy, the question of whether America can do the work of becoming a genuine democracy still remains. Removing monuments to the lie of white supremacy is an important step, but a shared future depends on redistributing power and resources so that every American, no matter their race, income, geography or immigration status, has access to healthcare, public education, affordable housing, a living wage, clean water and a livable planet.
In this moment when millions of Americans are suffering from a triple crisis of poverty, Covid-19 and police brutality, we need more than a conversation about monuments. We need concrete action to address the incredible disparities in death rates among Black, brown and poor people. This pivotal moment for our nation and our world is beckoning us to dismantle injustice and rebuild with love as the foundation. We can build a more just, humane, equitable and peaceful world. But, as King so prophetically admonished us: “The hour is late. And the clock of destiny is ticking out. We must act now before it is too late.” We must act now, America.
• Bishop William J Barber, II is president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. He is author of We Are Called to Be a Movement
• Dr Bernice A King, the youngest child of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and Coretta Scott King, is a global thought leader, orator, peace advocate and CEO of the King Center, which was founded by her mother