Historians Reflect on the Debate over Confederate Memorials

By John Gregory | 2/11/16 1:50 PM

It’s hard to believe that seven months ago, the hot topic in Frankfort wasn’t pensions or the elections, but what should be done with the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis that has been in the state Capitol Rotunda since 1936.

That debate was part of a national conversation about Confederate iconography that followed the killing of nine parishioners at a Charleston, S.C., church last June. The man charged in the shootings was allegedly inspired in part by white supremacist ideology.

But now with the specter of pension liabilities, Medicaid bills, and other budget issues facing state lawmakers, the call to remove the Davis statue from the Capitol seems a distant memory. Yet as legislators convene in Frankfort this session, they will once again pass through the shadow of Davis and the lingering political, racial, and social tensions the Civil War left with the commonwealth and the nation.

Using Symbols in a Spiteful Way
“The problem with wars is that they don’t end,” Kentucky writer Wendell Berry told the American Association of State and Local History conference in Louisville in September (2015). “We’ve still got the Civil War.”

Berry and state historian James Klotter of Georgetown College addressed the gathering as part of a discussion about the relevance of history. The Charleston shootings and the ensuing debates over Confederate flags and statues became a focal point of their conversation.

“I understand about the Confederate flag and the problem it raises,” says Berry. “I don’t think that flag is a symbol so much as it is a finger… I think after the south was defeated in the Civil War, all it had left was spite and it understands how to use symbols in a spiteful way.”

Perspective is another crucial element, adds Klotter. He contends without a knowledge of history, people operate in a vacuum without a sense of where they’ve been or how they got where they are today. And from that grounding, Klotter says history gives individuals a new sense of both identity and objectivity.

“You see things in a different light,” Klotter says. “You’re more understanding of diversity, you’re more understanding of conflict, [and] more understanding of things that teach empathy.”

Berry says that anyone is capable of falling into indifference. He cautions that reducing either side – liberal or conservative, Union or Confederate, black or white – to its stereotypes involves a great risk.

“It’s easy to deal in symbols, it’s easy to deal in generalities, but what we lose then is the sense of the humanity that’s involved,” says Berry.

The South Carolina Response
In the wake of the massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, officials removed Confederate flags from the statehouse grounds of South Carolina (the first state to secede from the Union) and Alabama (the original capitol of the Confederacy) – but the actions unfolded under very different circumstances.

Less than a week after the church shootings in mid-June, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called state lawmakers back into session to approve taking down a Confederate flag at the capitol.

“This is a moment in which we can say that that flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state,” Haley said in a press conference announcing her decision.

The flag had flown over the South Carolina capitol dome for nearly four decades, but was removed to a Confederate monument on the capitol grounds in 2000. As part that transfer, legislators passed the South Carolina Heritage Act, which requires a super-majority of the state general assembly to approve any changes to war or civil rights memorials on public property in the state.

After two weeks of sometimes heated and emotional debate, the legislature voted to remove the flag. Thousands gathered in Charleston on July 10 to watch as South Carolina state police lowered the flag. It will be displayed at a state history museum.

Eric Emerson, director and historic preservation officer for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, says the debate is now shifting to local Confederate displays. The State newspaper reports that the small town of Greenwood wants to update its veterans memorial to change its segregated listings of “Colored” and “White” soldiers. And the Citadel wants to take down a Confederate naval flag that hangs in its chapel.

But both actions would require legislative approval, and Emerson says the speaker of the state house has pledged to hear no more Heritage Act requests while he’s in office.

The Alabama Response
It was a much calmer scene in Montgomery, Ala., the morning of June 24. At the direction Gov. Robert Bentley, two state workers quietly furled four Confederate flags displayed around a Confederate monument on the Alabama capitol grounds. No crowds were present, and few media were even aware it was happening.

“We are facing some major issues in this state regarding the budget and other matters that we need to deal with,” Bentley told Alabama.com that day. “This had the potential to become a major distraction as we go forward.”

Some have speculated whether Bentley’s action was more about symbolism or economics. The same day he ordered the Confederate flags removed, Google announced it would build a $600 million data center in Alabama.

Following on Wendell Berry’s analogy, Steve Murray, the director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, says segregationist Gov. George Wallace used the Confederate flag as a middle finger to President John F. Kennedy and his administration during the Civil Rights Movement. Murray says he sees Bentley’s decision to remove the flags as an open-handed gesture of reconciliation and understanding.

Murray says local Confederate heritage groups protested Bentley’s move, and the governor even faced a lawsuit over the matter, but that has since been dismissed.

A Mission to Facilitate Understanding
After the fights over Confederate flags ebbed, the debate shifted to other Confederate iconography such as monuments like Kentucky’s Jefferson Davis statue. The argument was that such statues often present a one-sided if not outright distorted view of the Civil War, its causes, and its aftermath.

Similar concerns have been raised about memorials to Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in his home state of Tennessee, and to Benjamin Tillman, a former governor of and U.S. Senator from South Carolina.

Historian Eric Emerson says Tillman, who helped found Clemson University, was “virulent racist” who advocated hunting down and killing African Americans. But those facts are omitted from Tillman memorials in that state, according to Emerson, and he contends that raises questions about the propriety of those displays. Some in the Palmetto State have called for the removal of a Tillman statue on their statehouse grounds.

“This is not something we’ve experienced as a republic since the Revolutionary War,” says Emerson. “It’s not since we overthrew the King that monuments in the United States have been taken down.”

Emerson and other historians at the recent Association of State and Local History conference say there’s great value in engaging the public in the decisions about these and other Confederate memorials. And they say historians should help inform those discussions.

“It’s the debate over these monuments that is educational,” says Emerson. ”It’s paramount to what we do in educating people about the past.”

Alabama’s Steve Murray adds: “Our missions are to facilitate conversations and understanding among people.”

Is Adding Context Enough?
But even the historians themselves disagree on the issue. At a conference session dedicated to the future of Confederate symbols, opinions ranged from leaving the monuments in place to surrounding them with other monuments that provide more balance to the historical story.

First off, do all statues carry the same social impact? Steve Murray wonders if statues memorializing Confederate military leaders like Nathan Bedford Forrest should be treated the same way as a monument that list the names of a specific community’s Civil War dead.

Emerson says his office of historic preservation in South Carolina advocates for adding context to the memorials. For example, he argues a statue of Benjamin Tillman at the South Carolina capitol should include information about the lawmaker’s racist beliefs as well as details about why the monument was built in the first place.

“It marked the end of Reconstruction,” says Emerson. “It has deeper meanings about politics, hope, and despair. To find some kind of way to explain that is part of our job.”

Author and Civil War history blogger Kevin Levin says each community should decide what to do with its local monuments. He agrees with the idea of adding more educational materials around the statues, but he is uncertain how successful that will be.

“As much as we might believe we have the answer as historians, it’s not clear that’s going to satisfy the people in the trenches on both sides of the issue,” Levin says.

But enhancing a statue with interpretive displays that people may or may not read isn’t enough, according to Sabrina Robins of African Heritage, Inc., a non-profit organization in Appleton, Wis.

“The problem I have is the full story is not told,” says Robins. “Those with the money to erect [the statues] get to tell the story, so it’s not a good historical record of what’s going on.  Public historians should be more vocal about adding marginalized voices to complete historical record.

Whether a statue is left in place or removed, Nicole Moore of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta says public historians have a responsibility tor provide more educational context to the iconography of our past.

“I think we have to get the public to understand that symbols change over time,” Moore says. “That what once might have been a source of pride [has] of over time has come to mean terror, death, or ignorance.”

The Debate over Kentucky’s Confederate Monuments
Last summer the fate of the Jefferson Davis statue at the Kentucky capitol was far from certain. A bipartisan roster of state politicians ranging from U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell to state House Speaker Greg Stumbo as well as gubernatorial candidates Matt Bevin and Jack Conway said the statue should be moved to another venue such as the Kentucky History Center in downtown Frankfort.

On the other hand, nearly three-quarters of respondents to a Bluegrass Poll said the statue should remain at the capitol.

Last August the Kentucky Historic Properties Commission, which oversees the state capitol and the statuary there, decided in a 7-2 vote that Jefferson Davis would remain in the Rotunda. But the group called for interpretive displays around the statue to provide historical context to Davis and his connection to the commonwealth.

That decision rankled civil rights activists and some lawmakers who pledged to introduce legislation in the 2016 General Assembly session to remove the statue. A few weeks later a group of 72 historians from public and private universities and colleges around the commonwealth sent a letter to state officials to explain why they want the statue removed from the capitol.

“Rather than honoring the past, the statue offers a visceral and potent miseducation,” the historians wrote. “The statue is not a neutral evocation of facts, but an act of interpretation that depicts Davis as a hero with an honorable cause. Virtually no respected professional historians embrace this view.”

The historians also argued that Kentucky’s landscape is “riddled with images that belie the actual facts of history.” Indeed, statues honoring Confederate soldiers dot courthouse lawns, cemeteries, and parks across the commonwealth. A count attributed to former state historian laureate Thomas Clark lists 72 Confederate memorials in the state. That doesn’t include counties, schools, and streets that bear the names of prominent Confederates or athletic teams that feature a Rebel mascot.

In November, the Lexington Urban County Arts Review Board recommended the removal of statues honoring Confederate figures John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan from the city’s courthouse square. That move came despite a majority of public comments that favored keeping the monuments in place, according to a story in the Herald-Leader. The Urban County Council is expected to discuss the matter this month.

As for adding thorough interpretive displays to existing monuments, the historians who advocate for removing Jefferson Davis from the Kentucky capitol argue that simply adding what they describe as easily overlooked text wouldn’t undo the powerful message conveyed by a statue, especially one placed in such a prominent place as the Capitol Rotunda.

“Removing the Davis statue would not ‘erase history;’ it would rather make room to elevate in his place a more deserving Kentuckian,” according to the historians.

A Plea for Civil Discourse
State Historian James Klotter was not a signatory to that letter, but he agrees that there are people more deserving than Davis of a statue in the state capitol. The rotunda features likenesses of Davis, President Abraham Lincoln, statesman Henry Clay, Vice President Alben Barkley, and pioneer doctor Ephraim McDowell.

Klotter suggests an alternative line-up of Clay, explorer Daniel Boone, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, writer Robert Penn Warren, and suffragist Madeline McDowell Breckinridge. Whatever fate becomes the Davis statue, Klotter says he understands the complexity of the issue.

“It’s a political decision, it’s a historical decision, it’s a memory decision, it’s moral decision, and each person can answer it their own way,” Klotter says.

In pondering that decision, Wendell Berry likes to quote his brother, former state Sen. John Berry, who once said “you can’t improve your history by hiding the evidence.” Wendell Berry also fears that removing Jefferson Davis from the capitol may create more problems that it would solve.

“If [the statues] disappear, they disappear only because some people want them to disappear,” Berry says. “And so the resentment goes back among the people who wanted them to appear, and it festers and it breaks out again somewhere else down the line.”

Regardless of what happens to the Davis statue and other Confederate tributes around Kentucky, Berry and Klotter say the discussions about history the debate inspired have been important. Berry says people must have courage to face their history and the challenges it represents. That process begins, Berry says, when people truly talk – and listen – to one another.

“People are talking to each other in terms of slogans and insults,” Berry says, “when what you long to hear, and it has a distinctive sound, is actual discourse, where issues are discussed at length, patiently and in detail, and then somebody replies at length, patiently and in detail.”