Spending a week in Canada in the wake of the recent violence in Charlottesville gave me a useful vantage point for thinking about the significance of Confederate monuments in this country. Most of the discussion of this issue that I have read lacks what historians call “context,” meaning an understanding of the political climate in which these memorials were created.


Robert E. Lee disapproved of Civil War monuments. “I think it wiser,” the Confederate general wrote, just a few years after the end of the conflict, “to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife.” What Lee’s statement highlights is the fact that what’s at stake here is not just a few pieces of stone and bronze, but how this country decides to view some of the darkest and most disturbing chapters in its history.


Research by the Southern Poverty Law Center has found that about 700 monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders exist across the US. There was a huge surge in the construction of Confederate monuments between the 1890s and the 1920s — two generations after the end of the Civil War. The timing was no coincidence: Around the turn of the 20th century, nostalgia for the Confederacy was sweeping the South as the war generation began to pass away. Moreover, a romantic image of gallant rebels fighting for states’ rights coincided with the entrenchment of Jim Crow, a system of racial oppression that kept black Southerners poor and disenfranchised. In 1915, what is known as the second Ku Klux Klan was founded near Atlanta; it had at least 2 million members by the mid-1920s.


The surge in monument building in honor of men who fought to preserve slavery was meant to emphasize white domination in the South.


“These statues were a statement fundamentally about who had the power,” writes Dr. Eric Foner, author of an acclaimed book on the postwar Reconstruction period. They “were a kind of in-your-face statement about the resiliency of white supremacy in 20th century America.”


In the same period, even the North was engaging in a movement toward national reconciliation that played down the role of slavery and emancipation in the war and venerated Lincoln and Lee as symbols of unity. Monuments and plaques to one-time enemies of the Union went up in places as unlikely as New York and Washington.


This spirit of reconciliation came at the cost of near-total federal indifference to the plight of black southerners. When Jim Crow laws were enforced in the South, most Northerners were fine with this injustice.


As the Civil Rights movement blossomed in the 1950s and ’60s, another raft of Confederate monuments went up during the last gasp of Jim Crow. Now it was joined by a newfound veneration for the Confederate battle flag — another attempt to assert white supremacy by glorifying the Confederate cause.


But in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, historical memory of the Civil War began to shift, coming to emphasize slavery’s centrality to the conflict. Confederate leaders like Lee were defined by historians for their defense of slavery, rather than the defense of their homeland.


The U.S. required a bloody shock to start reckoning seriously with the implications of honoring figures like Jackson and Lee in its courthouse squares. That shock came in June 2015, when a young white supremacist named Dylann Roof, after brandishing the Confederate battle flag, opened fire in a Charleston, South Carolina, church, killing nine African-Americans in an attempt to launch a “race war.”


The recent violence in Charlottesville was a second shock and it became a turning point. The University of Texas has now joined my alma mater, Duke University, in quietly removing statues of Confederate generals.


In the interest of full disclosure, I feel obliged to acknowledge that some of my ancestors fully supported the Confederate cause. My great-great-great-grandfather, Gideon Lincecum, was 68 when the Civil War began, but every one of his sons and grandsons served in the Confederate army. I have no doubt that they supported slavery and believed the war was fought to preserve it. I disagree with them, and I believe it is naïve to think that memorials to the Confederacy and its leaders are not about white supremacy and racism.


Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories. His weekly column is published in the Herald Democrat. Email him at jlincecum@me.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.