Confederate monument, Lexington, N.C.

Selective Memory and Historical Revisionism: A Case Study of Confederate Monuments in North Carolina

The dismantling and removal of Confederate memorials and monuments has been an ongoing process in the U.S. since the advent of the 20th century. The vast majority of Confederate monuments were erected during the late 19th century and the early-mid 20th century, periods that coincided with the 50th anniversary and the centennial of the Civil War, as well as the era of Jim Crow laws (introduced in the late 19th century) and the Civil Rights Movement (1950s-60s). In many cases, the construction of the monuments was dedicated not to honor fallen soldiers in the South but to promote ideals of white supremacy and bolster “legitimacy” to the disenfranchisement and exclusion of black people in the U.S. Many municipalities in the US have removed Confederate monuments — especially in the fallout of the 2015 Charleston church shooting, the Charlottesville protests of 2017, and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Sean Reed, Yassin Mohamed, Rayshard Brooks, and Daunte Wright, among other African Americans — but longstanding legal barriers in North Carolina have impeded the removal of Confederate monuments.

Confederate monument, Rutherford County Courthouse
Rutherford County Confederate Soldiers Monument, erected 1910; Rutherfordton, N.C. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

The Fallacies of Memory and Historical Revisionism

In his ruminations on public memory and cultural pride within post-Civil War activities and landscapes, Paul Shackel suggests three criteria that reinforce historical schisms/perceptions, shape individual ideologies, and contribute to the marginalization of African Americans and other minority groups: “(1) forgetting about or excluding an alternative past, (2) creating and reinforcing patriotism, and/or (3) developing a sense of nostalgia to legitimize a particular heritage” (Shackel 655). The Lost Cause of the Confederacy can be considered one example of historical revisionism. The Confederacy’s cause is advocated as a just and heroic one, further perpetuating racism and the antebellum defenses of slavery, minimizing social inequalities or denying their existence. Indeed, states Shackel, “when Americans reflect… on [their] collective national memory, it has focused on elites and traditional heroes. The perception of many is that American history is linear and straightforward. This uncomplicated story occurs only when we leave others out of the picture” (Shackel 657). Such a stance in collective memory is problematic for several reasons: namely, that a uniform reading squashes representation of individuality, controlling the past by elevating and promoting the ideals of cultural authorities and leaders.

These strategies have become important for the concept of selective memory; statues, monuments, historical artifacts, and landscapes all have some meaning ascribed to them, and these meanings can vary between individuals and social groups. Shackel notes that context and symbolism play integral roles in representation, which is always in flux and can vary significantly or contradict the official memory, especially among minority groups grappling with social settings that condense, simplify, or distort complex histories. “Using past experience and the ability to read the meanings of objects,” he states, “allows one to accept or reject the use and meaning of the object and the creation of a particular past” (Shackel 665). In other words, in Shackel’s eyes, altering the interpretation or challenging the meaning of Confederate symbols can open further conversations in the Confederate monuments debate:

  1. Highlighting the importance of historical narrative (i.e., who the monument honors, who crafted and commissioned it, its symbolism and original location, method, and reason for its removal).
  2. Opening options for improved social narratives (i.e., intentions of the monument’s creators and the subsequent impacts – intentional or otherwise – on different groups).
  3. Probing the monument’s place and relevancy in the history of the nation.
  4. Creating interactive opportunities with both majority and minority groups/stockholders (reflecting their needs and values, creating as balanced a description and narrative as possible, potentially addressing the civil rights and social justice issues related to the Confederacy and Confederate monuments, and other problems surrounding racism in the U.S.).

The Persistence and Frailty of the “Lost Cause” Narrative

A great deal of misperception about the Confederacy stems from the mythology of the “Lost Cause,” which emerged after the Civil War and was generally understood as the means by which the former Confederates came to terms with such a harrowing defeat. At its core, the pseudo-historical, negationist ideology contends that the cause of the Confederate States during the American Civil War was just, heroic, and separate from slavery. Throughout history, the narrative has evolved and been used to oppose movements for racial justice, including Black Lives Matter and the removal of Confederate monuments (Harcourt 2017; Hartley 2021; Maurantanio 2019; Kytle and Roberts 2018).

Six years after a white gunman shot to death nine African-American churchgoers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., more than 300 Confederate symbols have been removed, including 170 monuments. Still, the immediate aftermath of the shooting sent shockwaves across the South. For more than 150 years, many white Southerners viewed Confederate iconography as emblems of their heritage and regional pride – despite their association with slavery, Jim Crow’s racist power structure, and the violent resistance to the Civil Rights movement (Hartley 2021; Maurantanio 2019; Kytle and Roberts 2018; Wilson and Kelson 2019). But even before the Charleston tragedy, notes Karen Cox, “monuments had become symbols of the country’s political divide and another subject in the stable of issues conservative politicians employed to stoke a race war” (150-51).

Base of Calhoun Monument; Charleston, S.C. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
The empty base of the John C. Calhoun Monument, Charleston, S.C.; removed June 2020. As of October 2020, the statue has yet to be claimed by any historical society or museum. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

The thwarted efforts at removal were further compounded by a profound absence of legal channels, neo-Confederates and alt-right agitators, and deflective statements by politicians such as Lindsay Graham. Discussions about the implications of Confederate monuments, commemorative locations, testimonial sites, and iconography continued with the violent 2017 protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. In both local tragedies, observes Ben Wright, the resultant fallout and debates galvanized public opinion — the statues went from “being viewed as embarrassing, quaint, unfashionable, or offensive to being viewed as intolerable reminders of a shameful heritage, as well as a disturbing ally of nascent neo-supremacist movements” (350).

Studies such as Buffington and Walder (2011) have researched and analyzed both the pro- and anti-monument supporters’ tactics and strategies in recent years. The “Lost Cause” narrative has continued to circulate among the public in regards to collective memory and human psychology, where constructed memories are accepted even if they contain partial aspects and viewpoints (Buffington and Walder 96), which extends to the presence of Confederate monuments in public places. A similar outcry and influx of countervailing memories have been observed by Capdepón, Sierp, and Strauss (2020), who gathered scholars with an interest in mnemonic layers inscribed in urban space via WWII museums, monuments, and street names in Munich, Kraków, and Argentina. Both of these studies provide further insight into the complex relations between memory, urban space, identity, and political change by analyzing how memory sites were planned and realized, challenged, changed, or recovered.

Dark Shadows in Lexington’s History

I’ve lived in North Carolina my whole life. I was born in Forsyth County and spent my early childhood and adolescence in Davidson County – specifically Lexington – and I got my associate’s degree in Thomasville. For the last four years, as I’ve obtained my bachelor’s degree in English and am currently striving towards my master’s in Professional Writing, I’ve lived in the state’s western region. As one can imagine, each of the areas is rich in history and local folklore, but they also have their own share of skeletons in the closet. The “Lost Cause” is something I, in my rose-colored view of the world, was unfamiliar with as a teenager, but in the years since I graduated high school, the uglier aspects of my hometown’s history gradually raised their heads and brought themselves to my attention.

The controversy about the Confederate statues has had a long shelf life in Lexington. My earliest memories of town revolve around the towering “Man on the Monument” overlooking Main Street. According to my grandmother, the statue once stood in the center of a traffic circle but was later moved to its position after too many cars collided with it. Further research on the Davidson County Historical Museum’s website confirmed this account, but I was also appalled to learn that several KKK rallies once occurred on the old courthouse steps during the 1990s. I was born the same year that it was mandated for groups and party planners that wanted to hold events on the steps or on the town square to obtain a permit from the county manager’s office.

You know what they say about hindsight.

Confederate monument, Lexington, N.C.
Confederate Soldier Monument, Lexington, N.C., erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1905. After overlooking the town square for 115 years, it was removed in October 2020 after more than 100 days of protesting. Image Credit: Winston-Salem Journal.

Monument Removal Policies and Debates

Besides advocating reinterpretation and erecting dialogic counter-movements, Confederate monument opponents have also suggested placing the monument in exile. Forest and Johnson (2019) found instances of such removal policies with the transfer of Soviet-era monuments in Budapest, Lithuania, and Moscow to different public locations. One instance was the relocation “of a Soviet World War Two memorial revered by the local Russian population and reviled by ethnic Estonians to a nearby Soviet military cemetery. While sparking international controversy and local demonstrations, this move preserved the statue as a lieu de memoire for the Russian community while sending the clear message that its legitimacy lay as a memorial to the dead rather than a monument to the war” (Forest and Johnson 130).

A third counter-monument strategy in Moscow “de-politicizes Soviet-era monuments by treating them as objects of art” (Forest and Johnson 130), while Budapest satirizes the monuments, and Lithuania “uses the statues to speak directly to Soviet-era repression” (Forest and Johnson 130). However problematic the state park approach may be in the U.S., inevitably risking further local demonstrations and controversy, deliberately exiling the Confederate monuments to more obscure sites could evoke physical acknowledgment of their problematic history and nature. Similarly, “jurisdictions including Lexington (Kentucky) and Portsmouth and Norfolk (Virginia) have moved or proposed moving Confederate statues from central public locations to local cemeteries to reconcile conflicting community demands” (Forest and Johnson 130).

A fourth and final strategy to this ‘monumental’ problem can be glimpsed in recent legal action in New Orleans, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu defined three criteria justifying the deconstruction of four public monuments asserted to be ‘public nuisances’: “(1) Praises a subject at odds with the message of equal rights under the law; (2) Has been or may become the site of violent demonstrations; [and] (3) Constitutes an expense to maintain that outweighs its historical importance and/or the reason for its display on public property (Code of the City of New Orleans 2017)” (Sheehan and Speights-Binet 355). Here the vague term “nuisance” is a nuanced protest, highlighting the risks associated with the monument’s powerful creed of white supremacy. Under the terms of Landrieu’s criteria, any monument that lauds violent actions promoting ethnic, racial, or religious supremacy or represents and promotes ideologies that oppose equal rights and treatment should be demolished, deferring to racial reconciliation initiatives rather than revere the memorials as constant reminders of racism and inequality. Corresponding to this strategy, by denying the insulative power of nostalgia in the present, the tactic suggests that removing the statues — difficult though the process may be — would provide a cathartic experience for a city and memorial landscape pained by past and present bigotry and white fragility.

References

Buffington, Melanie L., and Erin Waldner. “Human Rights, Collective Memory, and Counter-Memory: Unpacking the Meaning of Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia.” Journal of Cultural Research in Art Education, vol. 29, 2011, pp. 92-108.

Capdepon, Ulrike, Aline Sierp, and Jill Strauss. “Introduction: Museums and Monuments: Memorials of Violent Pasts in Urban Spaces.” History and Memory, vol. 32, no. 1, 2020, pp. 5-8.

Cox, Karen L. “Charleston, Charlottesville, and Continued Challenges to Removal.” No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2021, pp. 149–168. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469662695_cox.9.

Forest, Benjamin, and Juliet Johnson. “Confederate Monuments and the Problem of Forgetting.” Cultural Geographies, vol. 26, no. 1, 2019, pp. 127-131.

Harcourt, Edward J. “Would to God I could Tear the Page from these Memoirs and from My Own Memory: Co. Aytch and the Confederate Sensibility of Loss.” Southern Cultures, vol. 23, no. 4, 2017, pp. 7-28.

Hartley, Roger C. (2021). “The Warping-of-History Approach: The Rise of Monument Mania.” In Monumental Harm: Reckoning with Jim Crow Era Confederate Monuments (pp. 53-91). Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv18sqxrz.9

Kytle, Ethan J., and Blain Roberts. “Segregating the Past.” Denmark Vesey’s Garden : Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy. The New Press, 2018, pp. 129-138. EBSCOhost, search-ebscohost-com.proxy195.nclive.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1731067&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Maurantanio, Nicole. “Heroes, Villains, and the Digital Confederacy.” Confederate Exceptionalism: Civil War Myth and Memory in the Twenty-First Century, University Press of Kansas, 2019, pp. 139–162. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvwh8fjr.12.

Shackel, Paul A. “Public Memory and the Search for Power in American Historical Archaeology.” American Anthropologist, vol. 103, no. 3, 2001, pp. 655-670.

Wilson, Charles R., and Natalie K. Nelson. “From Bozart to Booming: Considering the Past and Future South.” Southern Cultures, vol. 25, no. 1, 2019, pp. 6-11.

Wright, Ben. “Confederate Statues and their Dirty Laundry.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, vol. 18, no. 3, 2019, pp. 349-359.

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