The national protest movement that has erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death has rekindled a fire under the cultural tinderbox known as the American Confederacy.
In the past week, public officials, military leaders and sports executives have made moves to take down Confederate statues and ban the Confederate flag, iconography that remains inextricably linked to the Southern cause that launched the Civil War: the preservation of a way of life anchored to slavery.
While such efforts have flared in recent years, historians say the Black Lives Matter protest movement once again sweeping the nation after Floyd’s death has catapulted the issue to a place of unprecedented visibility that is likely to have lasting effects. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man in Minneapolis, was pinned to the ground by officers after being accused of passing a fake $20 bill at a grocery store. In a video of the encounter, Floyd gasped for breath as officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“We’re in another world now, the mask is off in terms of these things being symbols of slavery,” says Stephanie McCurry, professor of American history at Columbia University in New York City and author of “Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.” “I don’t think there’s any going back from this moment.”
The reckoning has been swift when compared to a patchwork of past efforts.
In 2015, after avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, the Confederate flag — also known as the Rebel Flag — was removed from the statehouse grounds.
Two years later, a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to the death of one protester resulted in calls to tear down statues of Confederate leaders, but conservative local politicians largely managed to keep the statues in place.
“This to me seems to be a really simple fight. And the fact that it is so hard for us is an indication that we have a very, very, very long way to go,” says former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu. “It’s hard for people to change. Racism is a painful sickness this country has dealt with for a very long time.”
In 2015, Landrieu made national headlines as he successfully argued for removing statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He says the obstacles he faced shows how effectively the Confederacy’s supporters were able to obscure their support of slavery by instead making the war into a “noble cause.”
“Underneath all of that was the premise that black people were inferior to white people,” he says. “These monuments and these flags, although they are symbols, are up there because of an attitude of white supremacy and a bias toward the very simple notion that is utterly and completely wrong, that African Americans are not equal, and are less than.”
Recent events have generated changes at a comparatively breakneck pace.
This week alone saw statues taken down in Jacksonville, Florida, and Indianapolis, while an iconic statue of Southern General Robert E. Lee was ordered removed by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam as protesters in his state toppled other symbols of Confederate leaders.
The Confederate flag is inherently “a symbol of white supremacy and slavery. Which is why white supremacists throughout the years have flown the flag themselves because they, too, acknowledge it as a symbol of white supremacy,” says Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have called for the removal of 10 statues of leading Confederate figures, while Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said he is open to renaming military bases bearing the names of Confederate brass. President Donald Trump tweeted his opposition to such a move.
“These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom,” Trump tweeted Thursday.
Hours later, the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee approved a sweeping amendment to strip the names of Confederate generals from bases, building, planes, ships and even streets within three years.
Other military leaders already have weighed in.The Navy announced Tuesday it would ban the Confederate flag from its military installations. Last week, the Marine Corps began implementing a ban on displaying the flag in any form.
That decision is a nod toward the many African Americans serving in the armed forces, but it must be followed up with deeper reforms to fully integrate people of color, says Gaines Foster, history professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
“African Americans have been fighting against the use of the flag since the Civil War,” says Forster, a battle that only bore fruit after the murders at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. “What happened after the Charleston shooting was just the final stage of what was a long fight.”
NASCAR shocks with flag ban
In sports, NASCAR sent shockwaves through its fan base in announcing Monday its own ban on the Confederate flag, which are ubiquitous at stock car races given the sport’s Southern roots in illegal moonshine runs during Prohibition.
That move generated thanks from one of the sport’s few African American drivers, Bubba Wallace, who promptly adorned his car with a Black Lives Matter logo over a wheel arch. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who is white, also applauded the move.
“NASCAR is synonymous with the Confederate flag,” says Lecia Brooks, a civil rights attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “These are major movements. People are finally understanding and accepting what we mean by systemic racism. I think we’re at a real inflection point where people are really getting it.”
In an updated edition of the 2016 report “Whose Heritage?” the SPLC identified 114 Confederate symbols that were removed after the Charleston attack — and 1,747 that still stood.
Megan Kate Nelson, an author and historian of the Civil War, says the ongoing protests against racism have pushed government officials and corporations to come to terms with the legacy of the Confederacy.
“That has forced businesses to take action on a much larger scale. I have to say, I never thought I’d see the day NASCAR banned the Confederate flag from its events,” she says.
For many black Americans, the movement to strike Confederate imagery is a blow against oppressive daily reminders of the slave-owning intent of Southern Civil War leadership.
In Virginia, the Franklin County School Board voted unanimously Monday to ban displays of the Confederate flag under its school dress code. Penny Blue, a black woman and member at large for the Franklin County school board, began calling for the flag to be banned in January. She says the board was only moved to take action after Floyd’s death.
”It’s sad that it took the horrible murder of a black man on national TV and protests… before they would actually listen,” she says.
School board member Jon Atchue, who is white and supported the ban, says those saying he was being too sensitive are not aware of the history of violence against black people. Atchue said many black students growing up listening to stories of Ku Klux Klan members terrorizing their ancestors while bearing the flag would be fearful of seeing the image on school grounds. The Klan was started by Confederate veterans.
“If you’re scared and you don’t feel safe, that’s going to impact the educational process,” Atchue says.
For some Southerners, the backlash against Confederate symbols does not sit well. One NASCAR driver, Ray Ciccarelli, announced Wednesday he would quit at the end of the season over the decision.
“I could care less about the Confederate flag,” he wrote on Facebook. “But there are people that do and it doesn’t make them a racist.”
Paul Gramling, commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that advocates on behalf of Confederate history, called NASCAR’s ban on the Confederate flag a slap in the face to Southerners who helped build the sport and complained that African Americans will never be satisfied until all traces of Southern heritage are gone.
“We just wanted to be left alone and the North would not leave us alone,” says Gramling. “They keep bringing this up, causing problems that cause us to stand and defend what our ancestors did.”
The Georgia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans recently offered a $2,000 reward to anyone with information about damaged Confederate monuments in Georgia. Gramling says lawmakers or corporate leaders who ban Confederate images to promote inclusivity only cause more racial tension.
“Any time you take away or you attack someone’s heritage, especially Southern heritage, you’re not going to be making friends with them,” he says.
Salute relatives, but not the legacy
Southerners who want to honor ancestors who fought in the Civil War have the right to do so in a private setting, but foisting symbols of the Confederacy on those who were oppressed by it isn’t right, says Karen Cox,professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and author of “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.”
Cox explains that in the decades after the Civil War, the goal of the Daughters of the Confederacy was not just to lionize parents and grandparents who fought, but also to reassert Confederate principles through those tributes.
“Some will say the monuments are not about white supremacy, but if you read speeches given during the ceremonies and even some plaques themselves, some say that these veterans accepted the terms of war, but in the aftermath they ‘rose up to defend Anglo Saxon supremacy,’” she says. “There’s no mistaking what that means.”
Cox points out that many white Southerners have for decades been trying to help eradicate what they see as embarrassing symbols of a part of the country they love. Today’s movement will encourage more such collaboration.
She cautions that not only are actions taken against Confederate monuments and symbols more likely to happen in urban centers, they’re also more easily embraced in certain states.
“What’s happening in Virginia is not happening in Mississippi,” she says. “Charge will be hard for some, because it’s a battle over their identity as white Southerners.”
But such is the tenor of these times that change may well be coming to Mississippi, a cradle of some of the most strident civil rights protests in the 1960s. A bipartisan group of lawmakers are in the process of wrangling the votes needed to remove the Confederate flag from the Mississippi state flag.
Ultimately, white Southerners have for centuries lived with black Southerners — first as slaves and then as free men and women. By clinging to symbolic totems of a slave-owning American South, white Southerners are ignoring the painful fight of neighbors for basic human and civil rights, says Dewey Clayton, political science professor at the University of Louisville.
“Once the Civil War ended in 1865, many Southern states had a significant African American population,” says Clayton. “So, when they talk about Southern pride and Southern heritage, they are refusing to recognize many of the taxpayers in those particular states were not in support of the Confederate flag and what it stood for.”
Clayton says Confederate statues and flags can make not only black Americans feel unsafe, but also other minority groups. The time to divest of such icons is now, he says.
“What are we teaching our children?” he says. “As they grow up, they see these symbols of hatred and they see them everywhere in the public square. We’re sending the wrong message to them.”
Former mayor Landrieu says he’s optimistic Americans are finally ready to have an open and honest conversation about racism.
“I think this country needs to have a reckoning, a collective reckoning, that what we have done in the past is wrong, that what we did in the past had consequences, and to make a commitment to change,” he says. “We have to have a full stop and look at this and fix this. A lot of white people think that racism is only when you walk down the street and call an African American a bad name.”