A recent Winthrop University poll across eleven southern states reveals striking differences between whites and blacks’ attitudes on several social issues. The poll’s methodology is scientific and sound. Of particular interest are questions directed at southerners’ opinions on (1) monuments or memorials to Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War; and (2) statues honoring Confederate war heroes.
Though 50 percent of white respondents would like to see these monuments and memorials left alone, only 19 percent of black respondents shared this opinion. Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of black respondents believe these monuments and memorials should be moved. Just 19 percent of whites agreed.
Attitudes toward statues honoring Confederate war heroes were similarly polarized by race. While 48 percent of whites would like to see these statues left alone, only 14 percent of blacks agreed. Meanwhile, 73 percent of black respondents would like to see these statues moved. Just 23 percent of whites agreed.
These findings are instructive for the L-O-U community as we continue to debate what to do with Confederate monuments on our University campus and on our downtown courthouse. For the past year our University has sought a compromise. Contextualization, our Chancellor claims, is an additive process. Nevermind that the University already offers dozens of courses on the Civil War, African American history and politics, and the American South. Apparently, a plaque in front of the Confederate statue on campus is sufficient for carrying forward our educational mission as a flagship university. Recently, and without much public debate, the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors came to the same conclusion concerning the monument in front of our downtown courthouse.
Yet, the Winthrop poll results suggest contextualization offers little in the way of reconciliation. Whereas 29 percent of white respondents were in favor of contextualization of monuments and memorials, only 12 percent of black respondents agreed. Attitudes toward contextualizing statues honoring Confederate war heroes were similarly split. While 28 percent of whites were in favor of contextualization, just 11 percent of blacks agreed.
What conclusions can we draw from these findings? Clearly, contextualization is not a compromise. Indeed, it is as polarizing of a decision as any other. But, even if unpopular, is contextualization the right decision? Will a marker or plaque in front of a statue raise our community’s social awareness surrounding the historical and social forces that led to the statues’ placement? Is contextualization an adequate response to the concerns raised by many in our community?
We know from the historical record that white Southerners began constructing monuments and memorials to the Confederacy as soon as the Civil War ended. Yet, construction reached its peak beginning at the turn of the twentieth century and lasted for nearly three decades. This period coincided with the enactment of Jim Crow laws, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the high tide of black lynchings.
While a plaque or marker can convey this context, it still fails to acknowledge the experiences and attitudes of black Americans within this period of racial terrorism. How did southern black people view these monuments as they were being built en masse? How do southern black people think about the Confederacy today?
Plaques like the one recently placed in front of the Confederate statue on our campus still center the experience of southern whites. Whites fought to preserve the institution of slavery, and whites built monuments and memorials to honor themselves for their failed efforts. While true, this contextualization reinforces a belief that black people were passive actors to whom slavery happened, and then later Jim Crow. The University’s efforts to date reveal little if anything about how blacks then and now view these monuments and the Lost Cause they aim to honor.
Records of blacks’ attitudes toward these monuments as they were being built are sparse. Living under the brutal regime of Jim Crow prevented many from voicing opposition. Yet, evidence does exist in the form of opinions expressed by the era’s leading black intellectuals. One of the leading black publications of the early twentieth century was The Crisis magazine, published by the N.A.A.C.P. It’s editor for the magazine’s first twenty-five years was the black social scientist and public intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois used the magazine for commentary on a variety of social issues and conditions confronting black Americans.
In the August 1931 issue, Du Bois provides an important perspective on Confederate monuments:
The most terrible thing about War, I am convinced, is its monuments—the awful things we are compelled to build in order to remember the victims. In the South, particularly, human ingenuity has been put to it to explain on its war monuments, the Confederacy. Of course, the plain truth of the matter would be an inscription something like this: ‘Sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.’ But that reads with increasingly difficulty as time goes on. It does, however, seem to be overdoing the matter to read on a North Carolina Confederate monument: ‘Died Fighting for Liberty!’
Three years prior, in the March 1928 issue, Du Bois penned a scathing critique of those who sought to commemorate Confederate icons:
It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right… Either [Lee] knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel–not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.
Du Bois’s commentary comes at the height of white nostalgia for the Lost Cause, and illustrates what leading black intellectuals thought of efforts to memorialize it. Du Bois’s words ask us to consider these efforts as moral ones. These monuments reflect moral decisions of that era. The decision to commemorate the murder and theft of an entire people. And the decision to erase that murder and theft through the invention of a ‘holy and just cause.’
Yet, the maintenance of these statues reflects the moral decisions of our own era. A leading black public figure from the Jim Crow era, Du Bois urges us to eschew ‘weak compliance with public opinion.’ Instead, he compels us to make decisions that are just and right, even if they are unpopular. Maintaining these monuments to slavery and slavery’s defenders is a far cry from justice. But a process that claims to add context without reckoning with black experiences ,then and now, is equally flawed.