Confederate Memorials on Trial

#DoItLikeDurham rally (Joe Piette/Flickr)

Judge Timothy Walmsley’s recent ruling that the Confederate flag on defendant Travis McMichael’s truck is admissible in Ahmaud Arbery’s murder trial suggests that Confederate memorials aren’t simply racist symbols. Instead, they actively contribute to racial violence in our current moment.  

When Arbery was murdered by three white men while jogging in February 2020, the vanity plates on the defendants’ truck proudly displayed an outdated version of the Georgia state flag that included Confederate iconography. As prosecutor Linda Dunikoski noted, “Whether [Arbery] saw that on the truck or not, he was looking at the truck and that is what’s on the front of the truck.” Understanding how this symbol has been used historically promotes a fuller understanding of the larger context in which the defendants brandished the flag.

As historian John Coski has argued, after World War II and during the Civil Rights movement, the flag’s symbolism changed and it became closely associated with white supremacy. The hateful image has been strategically placed in parks, schools, public squares, courthouses, and military installations, among other public spaces, to advance the false narrative of white supremacy and Black inferiority. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Whose Heritage? database, 12 communities in the United States still display or incorporate the Confederate flag into official symbols—like the Alabama Coat of Arms. Also, the Sons of Confederate Veterans offer license plates in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

In the words of activist Bree Newsome, the flag “is the banner of racial intimidation and fear […] a reminder [of] how, for centuries, the oppressive status quo has been undergirded by white supremacist violence.” Even defense attorneys in the Arbery trial recognized this history when arguing that a Confederate license plate should not be admitted as evidence because a jury might recognize the flag’s historically racist intent. 

However, the flag is not the only Confederate memorial in question during the trial. As jury selection for the Arbery trial began, a private citizen covered Glynn County’s Confederate statue in plastic out of concern for its safety from vandals. Since its dedication in 1902,  the inscription etched into its panels conveys decades-old bitterness over their “lost cause,” while promoting outright lies that paint Confederate soldiers as heroes who resisted an “unconstitutional invasion.” Similar to other monuments erected by heritage groups in the wake of Reconstruction and during the Jim Crow era, the Glenn County monument served to intimidate Black communities. Too many of these monuments remain today – there are over 722 monuments live nationally which includes 111 live monuments in Georgia.  

Despite the Brunswick City Commission’s vote to remove this monument in Nov. 2020, it remains on public property. Moreover, scholars have shown the correlation between the location of Confederate monuments and racial terror lynchings. For example, the Confederate monument that stands in front of the Alamance County courthouse in North Carolina is located just a few yards away from the spot where a white mob lynched and murdered the formerly enslaved veteran and supporter of Black suffrage Wyatt Outlaw.

While 2020 will be forever marred by the public lynching of George Floyd, a deadly pandemic that had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, and the slaying of Mr. Arbery, these events are reminiscent of racial terror lynchings. The three defendants’ relentless pursuit, dehumanizing filming, and intentional killing of an unarmed Black man jogging in his own neighborhood is a grim reminder that some people still hold no regard for a Black person’s life.

When people are forced to pass a Confederate symbol – be it a monument, flag, or portrait –its presence signifies that committing treason against one’s government in an attempt to maintain the system of chattel slavery is morally acceptable. The psychological effects of this imagery on the passersby, and more importantly on judges and jurors, is real and has been documented by research

Despite the documented impact that Confederate memorials have, options for removing them in Georgia are limited because of draconian preservation laws. These laws keep Confederate memorials in place and thwart the will of communities that want to remove them. As Georgia and five other Southern states continue clinging to preservation laws, we maintain that the presence of these symbols is a blatant reassertion of white supremacy. Repealing these laws would enable communities to decide what and who to honor in public space. 

Today, more than 2,000 Confederate memorials continue to be used to deliver their intended message across the United States. However, there is also hope. Last year alone, more than 150 Confederate memorials were removed, relocated, or renamed. This year, communities have removed more than fifty symbols of Confederate hate and white supremacy.  

Although we continue to cry out for justice and for the removal of Confederate symbols from public space, we also realize that guilty verdicts will not bring Mr. Arbery back or make his family whole. Nor will it make Black people feel more secure when going about their daily lives. We call for an acknowledgment of the generational, retraumatizing, and vexing effect these tragic incidents awaken in Black people, who are forced to live knowing that the same thing could happen to them or their loved ones at any time and without warning. The very least we can do is to remove symbols of the Confederacy from public space because we do not need any more reminders.

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Lecia Brooks

Lecia Brooks is the Chief of Staff with the Southern Poverty Law Center, where she provides counsel to senior leadership, assists with strategic planning and works with people from across the organization to ensure the SPLC’s success, whether it is achieving long-term goals or maintaining effective daily operations. Before her current role, Brooks served as the SPLC’s chief workplace transformation officer, where she supported leadership and staff efforts to build a culture of inclusiveness and ensure a continued focus on diversity and equity.

Comments on “Confederate Memorials on Trial

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    Symbols matter.. and so do words!

    Nicely done!!

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    Flying a confederate flag to show pride in one’s Southern heritage is as nonsensical as flying a Nazi flag to show pride in one’s German heritage.

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