Modern debates over Confederate monuments are not merely concerned with culture, historical memory, or racism. For many monument defenders, there is also a pragmatic political motivation deeply rooted in the defense of race-based inequality and privilege in contemporary America.
Many American students never learn about Jim Crow; just segregation. This distinction matters. When Jim Crow is taught merely as racial separation, the Southern system of racial apartheid that existed for nearly a century appears as an occasional minor inconvenience: a seat in the back of the bus, a poorly functioning water fountain, or balcony-level seating in a movie theatre.
Segregation was just one aspect of Jim Crow, which encompassed everything from wealth, education, employment, sex, safety, health, and criminal justice, to monuments erected in public spaces. Southern Jim Crow was fashioned to establish and maintain white supremacy over African Americans. It changed over time, and Black people persistently resisted, but Jim Crow at its core was totalizing by design.
Wealth and racial disadvantage were explicitly connected. Black social mobility was systematically restricted by limited access to jobs, schools, and neighborhoods. Many resourceful Black Southerners forged their own upward paths through entrepreneurship, education, or migration, but race always affected their destinies regardless of work ethic or talent. In most Southern communities, even the poorest white youths enjoyed better educational resources than the wealthiest Black youths. Excellence sometimes shone through oppression but race usually trumped ability. For every Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, or Mary Jackson (the three women made famous by the book and film Hidden Figures) there were countless more geniuses whose gifts were suppressed.
Black poverty enhanced opportunities for white families. White children attended schools bolstered by Black tax dollars and enjoyed readymade access to cheap Black labor, especially that of Black female domestics who were essentially blacklisted from other jobs. 1 None of this was accidental. These interconnected inequalities were intentionally woven into the Southern system of racial apartheid to compound the wealth of one race at the expense of another.
The white supremacists who built this system and monuments to the Confederacy threaded moral lessons of white supremacy into the fabric of Jim Crow. They argued that racial advantages were part of a natural order, even as they found the need to protect white supremacy through legislation, violence, and disfranchisement. Not only did Black people deserve their inferior status, white supremacists argued, they actually needed these race-based societal limitations for their own good. As a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) claimed in a 1914 book “unanimously endorsed” by the organization, “Many negroes conceived the idea that freedom meant cessation from labor, so they left the fields, crowding into the cities and towns, expecting to be fed by the United States Government.” Yes, you read that correctly. The UDC invoked the notion of shiftless, government-dependent African Americans commonly referred to as “welfare queens” in the modern era to describe former slaves who fled from bondage in 1865.2
As historian Karen L. Cox has argued, groups such as the UDC and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) mythologized the Confederate Lost Cause to justify the racial oppression of Jim Crow. They emphasized the benevolence of slave owners for providing food and clothing to the people they held captive and stressed the heroism of the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klansmen who organized “to protect the women of the South from brutal assault, and to maintain, the supremacy of the white race.” White supremacists disseminated these lessons of white supremacy and black lethargy and criminality in schools and public forums to justify, even naturalize Jim Crow’s socially and politically constructed racial order.
Confederate monuments were essential pieces of white supremacist propaganda. Although today’s neo-Confederate groups refute associations between Confederate monuments and white supremacy, historians have overwhelmingly shown that these monuments were erected not only to honor soldiers, but also to celebrate white supremacy. This point has reached near-consensus among serious historians or anyone willing to honestly examine historical documents related to the erection of Confederate monuments. There is no great mystery here: today’s historians believe that Confederate monuments represent white supremacy because that is precisely what the white supremacists said they represented when they put them up.
So why do we have this current debate? Why are white conservative politicians, including Northerners and the ancestors of post-1865 immigrants, determined to protect Confederate monuments? And if they ask what harm the monuments cause in their current places of prominence, then historians should also ask: What is your investment in their maintenance in the public sphere?
Answers abound. Some proponents appeal to respect for the deceased. A more critical onlooker might invoke miseducation, political opportunism, or racial biases. But this current debate is not merely another battle in recurrent cultural wars. These monuments also carry contemporary political implications.
To acknowledge the monument builders’ intentions would mean reckoning with the vestiges of the social system they built. The racial wealth gap in the United States is rooted in racial discrimination that for generations has prevented Black people from accumulating wealth in the same way as whites. This system was by no means limited to the South but was absolutely essential to the racial hierarchy of Jim Crow. There are not many old-money Black families in the South because Black families were purposefully excluded from accumulating intergenerational wealth. Herein lies a compelling contemporary political motive to deny the socio-economic legacies of the systems these monuments represent. Many white southern conservatives continue to bear the fruit of their forefathers’ investment in racial apartheid (slavery notwithstanding!).
Take, for example, former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a white Southern conservative who in 2010 famously said of the civil rights era, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad.” Well, the reason Barbour did not think things were “that bad” was because he went to segregated white schools in a county that spent an average of $245.00 on each white student and only $3.00 on Black pupils. 3
His advantages did not end there. An attorney, Barbour’s entire political career was enabled by a social safety net that would have been unavailable to any Black person. Barbour tragically lost his father when he was two years old. But his well-connected family secured the free services of a Black convict-laborer who helped raise the children. Barbour later matriculated at the University of Mississippi Law School at a time when the state-supported institution had yet to graduate a single Black student. Upon graduation, he took a position at a law firm started by his grandfather in 1895. Soon after switching from a segregationist Eastland Democrat to a Republican—a common shift among Southern white conservatives who opposed the racial equality promised by the 1964 Civil Rights Act—Barbour assumed a series of political appointments as a lobbyist, aide, and conservative political strategist before running for Governor of Mississippi in 2004.
There is nothing wrong with using personal and political connections to advance one’s career. Who wouldn’t? But white Southern conservatives refuse to acknowledge or recognize that the advantages provided by such deep-rooted family connections and wealth are only available to them because their ancestors were not Black. Thus, the issue is not necessarily advantage, but rather the absence of disadvantage. No Black person in the history of Mississippi could have ever taken a job as an attorney at a law firm started by their grandfather in 1895. Black people could not go to law school in Mississippi during Jim Crow and were effectively barred from starting law practices. It is not necessary to criticize the career trajectory of Haley Barbour or others like him but let us also recognize that Black people could not enjoy similar paths. Regardless of personal merit, the defining factor for any white conservative born in the Jim Crow South was the simple fact that he or she was not born Black.
Confederate monument defenders often claim that to remove the monuments is to erase history. But these very same people often have no sense of the false histories conveyed by those symbols or any interest in reckoning with the historical realities of carefully crafted racial disadvantages imbedded within Jim Crow. The physical monuments still occupying public space in the Southern landscape are merely the material symbols of Jim Crow’s haunting legacy. The greatest benefactors of that system cling to those relics of the past as cover from the contemporary implications of acknowledging that so much of their current wealth is still a byproduct of a society intended to create opportunities for one race at the expense of another. Today, the essence of their privilege lies in their ability to call for racially-neutral policies while still polishing the family heirlooms inherited from their white supremacist ancestors.4
- Horace Mann Bond, The Education of the Negro in the American Social Order (New York: Octagon Books, 1970, orig., 1934), especially 92-97; and James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 148-156. ↩
- S.E.F. Rose, The Ku Klux Klan or Invisible Empire (New Orleans, LA: L. Graham Co., 1914), quoted on 9 and 14 and 15, respectively. ↩
- School expenditure figures taken from Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), 42-43. ↩
- The author would like to thank Professor Katherine Turk for her comments that greatly helped improve this essay. ↩