This was written back in 2017, when New Orleans was taking heat for removing Confederate statues. It is relevant today, especially the very last paragraph.)
Let’s talk about statues, particularly statues honoring the Confederacy. Last week (April 24, 2017), the city of New Orleans started to remove statues dedicated to the Confederate “heroes” Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P. G. T. Beauregard. The removals are part of an effort by reasonable Southerners to move racist relics out of the public square and into “a museum or other facility where they can be put in context.”
White “defenders of Southern heritage” are protesting the statues’ removal. The protests come with threats of violence. In a scene reminiscent of the National Guard escorting black students to and from Little Rock’s Central High in 1957, NOLA cops placed police snipers on rooftops to protect the city workers dismantling the statues. The city workers wear masks to keep the racists from identifying them. Protests are not confined to New Orleans. Last Saturday, a group of torch-welding, Little Hitlers marched through the streets of Richmond, Virginia, to a city park where a Robert E. Lee statue stands. They chanted “We will not be removed” (a chant that would be revived at the infamous Charlottesville protests).
On June 17, 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof went to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat through a prayer meeting, and then murdered nine black people. Inspired by the Confederacy, prior to the murders, Roof posed in pictures with his guns and Confederate flags.
After the Emanuel massacre, a movement to remove the Confederate flag from Southern state houses and public spaces picked up. Soon folks were talking about the thousands of monuments to the Confederacy scatter over the South. Many see the monuments as sinister celebrations of slavery and the South’s role in the Civil War. There is that: The statues depict slavers and Civil War “heroes.” But the statues have a deeper meaning, one that speaks to Reconstruction and, mostly, the reaction to Reconstruction.
If you went to school any time before the 1990s, if you were taught the history of Reconstruction, it went something like this: After the Civil War, the North passed a bunch of laws that gave former slaves a lot of rights, like the right to vote and own property. But the North did more than that: They sent white people – Carpetbaggers – south to make sure that The Blacks took power away from white Southerners. Treacherous white Southerners – Scallywags – assisted the Carpetbaggers. The Carpetbaggers and the Scallywags got The Blacks elected to Southern state houses and The Blacks started to ruin everything, so Reconstruction had to end and whites had to get control back to make the South great again. That was the official history.
Depending on who taught you what, The Blacks were either unprepared to rule or dirty scoundrels bent on punishing the white race. Whatever the case, The Blacks blew it, causing Republicans to abandon their cause and turn the South over to white Southerners. If you grew up in the South, you might have also learned that a civic group called the Ku Klux Klan helped the oppressed white Southerners throw off the yoke of “Black supremacy.” This is the story that informed the people who built Confederate statues, one that many who support statues also believe.
The true history is a bit different. The immediate post-Civil War period is known as Reconstruction. As the word suggests, the goal of Reconstruction was to build something new in the South, something different and hopefully fairer than the slavery-based Antebellum. Voting rights were granted to former slaves and property restrictions were removed from the law to make it easier for black men to run for office. And that happened. Former slaves were granted political rights, they did run for office, and they did win – but not without strong resistance from white Southerners and some elected officials in Washington, including President Andrew Johnson who wanted a “go slow” approach to Reconstruction.
Republicans – the anti-slavery party at the time – in Congress weren’t having it (this was back when politicians of the same party as the president would stand up to a shitty president).
Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau to help Southern Blacks assert their rights. Progressive white Northerners went South to help black Americans participate in our democracy. Some poor white Southerners allied themselves the freedmen, understanding that economically and socially they were more like the former slaves than plantation owners and white Southern elite. The whites who stood in solidarity with the former slaves were called “race traitors” or “Scallywags” by Southern racists.
Despite organized and violent opposition from Southern racists, the freedman/white working-class coalition succeeded in electing pro-Reconstruction Radical Republicans into every governor’s office in the South, save Virginia. Radical Republicans dominated state legislatures. Many new office-holders – from federal to local – were black. Mississippi sent two black men to the U.S. Senate.
To transition the South to a post-slavery future, the new multi-racial state governments tried to enforce federal Reconstruction provisions. They were aided by a new president, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Grant’s priority was to support Reconstruction and reform the South. If Southern states if wanted to be admitted back into the Union, Grant forced them to codify protections for black Americans. He authorized troops to intervene in areas where resistance to Reconstruction was strong. He helped push through the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed voting rights, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which opened public facilities up to all regardless of race.
Southern Democrats, calling themselves Conservatives, fought Reconstruction. They tried to use what local and state power they had to stall implementation. When politics didn’t work, the Conservatives turned to terrorism, employing militias such as the Red Shirts and the White Man’s League. In daylight, these groups would throw rallies and loudly support Democratic candidates. They’d parade in the street, give corner speeches, and pass out pamphlets (yesterday’s social media). At night, they would ride and raid Republicans, freedmen, and “race traitors.”
Supporting the “respectable“ terrorists were secret societies such as the Ku Klux Klan and Knights of the White Camelia. Craving anonymity, the Klan and their cohorts spurned daytime activities. However, when the sun set, they joined the Red Shirts and White Man’s League in nocturnal terrorism. Grant looked at the terrorists as post-war counterrevolutionaries, which they were. He used federal force to smash the Klan and their kin.
The terrorist violence and federal reaction made some white people woozy. Not-so-radical Republicans started back away from Reconstruction. Democrats saw Republicans in retreat and tried to destroy Reconstruction from within. Feigning support for Reconstruction, they played economic politics with poor whites, succeeding in splitting many of them from their black allies. Other Democrats bristled at any compromise with Reconstruction, even if it was purely symbolic. These folks called themselves The Redeemers. The Redeemers made common cause with conservative Republicans. They pushed an economic line – attacking “Negro corruption” and high taxes – but did not abandon racial politics.
In 1873, the country fell into an economic depression, something fairly typical in early American history. Two industries the South depended on – railroads and cotton – got hit the hardest. President Grant and Reconstruction were blamed. White America was “tired” and wanted to “go back to normal,” so they embraced a lie. Northern Republicans, including some abolitionists, declared the Confederacy dead, the conditions slavery finished, inequality over, and racism on its way out. Federal troops stationed in the South were put on stand down.
The elections of 1875 and 1876 saw the Red Shirts, the White Man’s League, and other militias engage in a harsh form of voter suppression. The terrorists threated to shoot any Republican who tried to run for office, as well as anyone who voted for a Republican. As armed militia, they marched with racist Democratic candidates. The Klan and the Knights of the White Camelia burned polling places and murdered Republicans. Democrats took back the South. All that was left was the presidency and a formal declaration that Reconstruction was kaput.
The presidential election of 1876 makes 2016 look like silly putty. The Republicans ran Ohio’s Rutherford B. Hayes; the Democrats, New York’s Samuel Tilden. Both were popular governors, both had high reputations for honesty. Tilden’s main issue was the corruption of the Grant administration. Hayes main issue was that the Democrats still needed to pay for the treachery of the Civil War.
After balloting, Tilden had 51% of the vote to Hayes’ 47%. However, things got skeezy in Louisiana, South Carolina, and – you’re shittin’ me! – Florida: Hayes won the electoral college by 1 vote. Because of the appearance of corruption in Louisiana, South Carolina, and – you’re shittin’ me! – Florida, Congress got involved. They confabbed a commission and came up with the Compromise of 1877: Ruthie Hayes could be the 19th President of the United States but under one condition, that he formally end Reconstruction and withdraw federal troops from the South.
Thus, ends the abbreviated story of Reconstruction. All that history is wrapped up in those Confederate statues. Ah, but there is more!
Following Reconstruction there was a 40-year period that historians refer to as the Nadir of African American History. Bracketed between the formal end of Reconstruction and the finis of World War I, it is one of the darkest moments of American history. Unfortunately, it is a history that many Americans don’t know. Let’s look at it:
If you think modern-day fans of the Confederacy are uber-aggrieved, self-victimized loudmouths, meet their great-great-grandfathers. The white supremacist South thought Reconstruction was Hell on Earth. These whites hated that their former slaves now had control over their own lives. Blacks owned their own farms, businesses, and homes. The South had black mayors, legislators, congressmen, and senators. And, worse: white race traitors married the heathen Blacks!
Having lost the War, “forced” to share power with people they still thought inferior, disgusted by “God-less” interracial relationships, white Southern resentment peaked. One of the best literary portraits of post-Civil War, white grievance is David Milch’s Steve the Drunk in the drama Deadwood. Steve’s hateful monologues are masterpieces of self-pitied rage. Put Steve inside someone who is now in the position to “assert his rightful place” and take vengeance, and you have the white man of the post-Reconstruction South.
The Nadir started slow, with white attacks on the right to vote. Now in power, whites started passing voter suppression laws. Blacks who attempted to vote were asked “Do you own property?” “Did your father have the right to vote?” “Can you spell?” and “Your I.D.?” Black people who insisted on exercising their right to vote were subjected to extreme violence.
After a few years or “polite” suppression, Southern states said “Screw it” and passed laws to deny Blacks their voting rights. In 1890, Mississippi – the only Southern state to elect Blacks to the U.S. Senate – disenfranchised black voters. Other states followed: South Carolina in 1895, Louisiana 1898, North Carolina 1900, Virginia and Alabama 1902, and Georgia and Texas in 1903.
While voting rights were being trashed, Southern legislators passed harsh segregation laws under the guise of “state’s rights.” White conservative Southern politicians regulated where people could eat, play, work, exercise, pray, and sleep. Who one could legally marry, dance with, and have sex with was scripted according to race. These laws were challenged in the courts. Almost all were upheld, even in the Supreme Court, who, in 1896, ruled that segregation was cool as long as the races had “separate but equal” accommodations (Plessy v. Ferguson).
Collectively, we call the voter suppression, segregation, and race-based controls on human behavior Jim Crow. Those who went against Jim Crow were threatened, jailed, and lynched. This is the part of the Nadir that many of us know. It gets darker still.
Lynching was not the only tool white supremacists used to keep black Americans “in line.” Angela Davis writes, that during slavery, “Rape was a weapon of domination, a weapon of repression, whose covert goal was to extinguish slave women’s will to resist, and in the process, to demoralize their men.” Rape as a white tool to dominate and repress blacks did not go away with slavery.
During Reconstruction and Jim Crow, white men raped black women to enforce racial hierarchies, to punish the victim and/or her family, to terrorize, to “show who is boss,” and for “sport.” Often the rapes were gang rapes. When rapes were reported to the police – most were not – if acknowledged, they were dismissed as a misunderstanding, “she wanted it,” or “she had it coming.” Activists who tried to get justice or publicize the rapes were attacked. If they were women, often they were subjected to retaliatory rape.
White supremacy dictated that white men raping black women was not rape. White people didn’t rape. Black men, on the other hand…
Whites insisted that black men were sex-crazed “Mandingos” who lusted after white women and that all Black men were rapists waiting to strike, equal parts sexual sorcerer and predator. If alone with a white woman, the black man would “rape.” If by his presence a black man “enticed” a white woman, he “raped.” If a black man touched a white woman in any way, he “raped.” If a white woman touched a black man, he “raped.” A black man whistling at or in the vicinity of a white woman engaged in “rape.” There was even a special crime for a black man looking at a white woman “the wrong way” – ”eye rape.” “Rape” was whatever white people wanted it to be. Any African American male accused of rape was looking at a death sentence, either from the courts or by vigilantes.
Noting the power imbalance, many white women forced black men into sexual relations, threatening them with a rape accusation if they did not comply. In fact, these men were being raped, however, if the raping of a black man by a white woman was discovered, the woman often claimed that they were raped. Even a consensual relationship between a black man and a white woman could result in a rape charge for the man. Of course, a rape charge meant probable death.
White rape and rape accusations stripped black Americans of freedom of sexuality and freedom to love.
And, then there were the White Caps. A secret society, whose desertion was punishable by death, the White Caps donned white caps and terrorized African Americans and others that they disapproved of. While they engaged in lynching, the White Caps loved their whips the best. They also liked to shoot at people and houses. Often these actions were pure terrorism, attempts to enforce white supremacy, however, the White Caps also had criminal motives.
The White Caps used intimidation to drive Blacks from their houses, farms and businesses. The terrorists targeted successful black businessmen, as well as Mexicans and Irish and Italian immigrants. Law enforcement mostly ignored the Caps. The few White Caps were arrested kept quiet, bound by their sworn loyalty to their brother Caps. The White Caps died out by the early 1900s. They were replaced by a deadlier group of white supremacists, the reconstituted Ku Klux Klan.
The Ku Klux Klan’s first reign was during Reconstruction. Formed by six Confederate veteran soldiers in 1865, it took six years before the Klan was dubbed a terrorist organization and smashed. Many of its members joined local white supremacist groups like the Red Shirts, White Man’s League, and, later, the White Caps.
In 1915, inspired by D.W. Griffith’s Birth of the Nation, a group of Southern racists met atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain and reignited the Ku Klux Klan. The reconstituted Klan grew slowly; however, in 1920, its numbers exploded. By 1924, the Klan membership was pegged between 1.5 to 4 million people. The Klan controlled the South, where most white people were members, as well as the state of Indiana and Orange Country, California. It was often portrayed as a friendly fraternal organization, even as it terrorized Blacks, Jews, Catholics, Italians, Mexicans, labor activists, socialist, and anyone else it deemed un-American. Though it declined late in the decade, it was vital in enforcing Jim Crow into the 1960s.
Webster defines “nadir” as “the lowest point.” One would think that the lowest point in African American history is the era of slavery. Perhaps it is. It is not for me to say. African American historians call the 40-years following Reconstruction the Nadir because it is the moment in American history in which black people, who fought like hell to be free, got their freedom taken away from them.
The first Africans were brought to America in 1619 as slaves. They were brought to Jamestown by Dutch traders who snatched them off of a Spanish slave ship. For the next 246-years, African slaves would build America. Sanitized white history teaches us that black slaves were passive. They were not. In 1663, 44-years after the first slave shit hit North American shores, black slaves in Gloucester County, Virginia joined with white indentured servants and turned on their masters (yes, the first slave rebellion in America was black and white). In the last twenty years, we’ve learned of other slave rebellions – Gabriel’s Conspiracy, Vesey’s Conspiracy, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, Amistad, and John Brown Raid – but there were many, many more.
Blacks – both free and enslaved – were active in the Abolitionist movement. We know of black resistance through the Underground Railroad and slave escapes, incidents that were deemed crimes at the time. All-timer Harriet Tubman was framed as a terrorist and a criminal. Northerners viewed her activity as “not helpful” and “uncivil.” Blacks also served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Black Americans worked hard to free themselves. They died and were maimed and raped to end slavery.
In 1865, the Civil War ended and slavery was finished. African Americans were free…for 12-years. During that brief time, they enjoyed some of the freedom that they fought and died for. They had control over their lives. They voted and served in government, dedicating themselves to democracy. They owned farms and businesses. The married who they wanted to, loved freely, and built families, which they were able to keep intact. None of their children would be sold off. They were free.
After a little more than a decade – a little less than one score – black Americans’ freedom was taken away. Apartheid replaced slavery. In the South, Blacks were ruled by Jim Crow. In the North, Jim Crow rules as well, but wasn’t spoken. Black America’s brief taste of freedom and gone, replaced by a state of existence “separate but equal” to slavery but sold to America as “freedom.” That is the low point. That is the Nadir.
Oh, I forgot one other thing that happened during the Nadir: White Southerners built Confederate statues! In the thirty years that followed Reconstruction, thousands of statues were erected. Monuments to the Confederacy and its “heroes” appeared in every major Southern city and most towns. Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P. G. T. Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, and even Nathan Bedford Forest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan had statues built in their honor.
And then there is Stone Mountain, founding place of the reconstituted Klan. Carved in the side of the mountain is a huge memorial to the Confederacy, built by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, with help from the Klan and the U.S. government. For decades, the Klan had a part of Stone Mountain reserved for their activities. Georgia law protects Stone Mountain as part of its heritage. Davis, Lee, and Jackson are carved on the mountain. If there was a similar monument in Germany, say a carving of Hitler, Himmler, and Goering on the side of the world’s famous Hoher Goll, the world would demand that it be dynamited. Americans look at Stone Mountain and only a few blanch.
But, let’s not get too hung up over who these statues and monuments celebrate. The statues and monuments themselves are symptoms of a disease. Let’s concentrate on when, how, and why these racist totems were created. It’s in the when, how, and especially why where we find the power of white supremacy and how it can be rooted out.
On April 24, 2017, New Orleans got rid of a statue of Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard. The Beauregard monument was conceived in 1895, shortly after his death, after Reconstruction, during the Nadir. After It was finished in 1915. The United Daughters of the Confederacy – the ladies who gave us the Stone Mountain Memorial – were behind the Beauregard statue. NOLA’s Robert E. Lee Monument, removed on May 19, 2017, was New Orleans’ first Civil War statue. Its life started in 1870, a month after Lee’s death, and after Reconstruction, during the Nadir. A whole bunch of Confederate War vets and Southern aristocracy pushed it. (By the way, both statues were on the National Register of Historic Places.)
Prior to the Beauregard and Lee statues’ removal, the city of New Orleans said that the statues “were erected decades after the Civil War to celebrate the ‘Cult of the Lost Cause,’ a movement recognized across the South as celebrating and promoting white supremacy.” Mayor Mitch Landrieu added, “These monuments have stood not as historic or educational markers of our legacy of slavery and segregation, but in celebration of it.”
Given that the statues – and other like them – were built during the Nadir, they not only champion the “Lost Cause”,” but celebrate the terrorism of the Red Shirts, White Men’s League, White Caps, and Ku Klux Klan. Just by their presence, Confederate statues celebrate lynching and systematic rape. Confederate statues celebrate the theft of property, the shooting of homes, and the burning of churches. Confederate statues celebrate nearly three centuries of human bondage and decades of American apartheid. Confederate statues are symbols of white supremacy.
But there is more to the statues than that. The white Southerners who built Confederate statues and monuments during the Nadir were saying “Fuck YOU!” to Reconstruction, to black freedom and empowerment, and to civil rights. These statues aren’t busts of men, they are statues of a big white middle finger aimed at African Americans and the ideal of equality. There is a hell of a lot of murder and torture and hate projected by those statues. It is past time to remove them.
But, know this: Removing Confederate statues, as well as those of Christopher Columbus and Spanish missionaries, will not do away with white supremacy. As hurtful as the statues and monuments are as symbols, they are fever blisters caused by white supremacy. Of course, every damn one of these totems must be yanked down and thrown into the dink; however, as these statues and monuments are symbolic, their removal has to be seen as symbolic as well. If the statues become our focus, if all we work for is the removal of stone and steel, we have lost. Until the ideology and impulses that made these totems possible are defeated, we still have plenty of work to do.