Controversies over Confederate monuments and memorials are part of an overdue racial reckoning for America, says Stanford historian

As people across the United States confront the nation’s legacy of slavery and systemic racism, monuments and memorials honoring the Confederacy have become political flashpoints, with some demanding their removal as symbols of racial oppression and others warning of an attempt to “erase” history and heritage.

According to Stanford historian James T. Campbell, most of these memorials – of which there are still well over a thousand scattered across the U.S., many in states that did not actually secede – were erected not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War but in the years 1890 between 1915. This period, Campbell points out, was the same era that saw the violent restoration of white supremacy in the South, disfranchisement of Black voters, legal segregation and a dramatic surge in lynchings.

“Understanding that historical context makes it a lot harder to claim that these monuments and memorials are simply ‘heritage,’ innocent of any racial meaning,” Campbell said.

Here, Campbell discusses the historical context in which these monuments were created and how they have become proxies in debates about racial injustice and anti-Black racism today.

Campbell is the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History in the School of Humanities and Sciences. His research focuses on African American history and the legacy of slavery in America. He also examines the ways in which societies tell stories about their pasts, not only in textbooks and academic monographs but also in historic sites, museums, memorials, movies and political movements.

One can scarcely pick up a newspaper today without reading about another monument or memorial being targeted by protesters or removed by city officials. Can you explain what is going on?

We’re kind of having a memorial moment, aren’t we? As a historian, I think there are two distinct questions here. The first is to understand the history of different monuments and memorials – the circumstances in which they were created, the stories they were designed to tell or to suppress. But it’s also important to think historically about our own time. Most of the monuments that have come down in recent years – I’m thinking particularly about monuments that honor the Confederacy – have stood for more than a century. So the fact that we are arguing about them now suggests that something has changed.

How did all these Confederate monuments and memorials come to be and why have they become so controversial now?

There has been a lot of great scholarly work on the Civil War in American memory, and on Civil War monuments in particular. Some of those insights have become broader public knowledge in the context of recent debates. Most, or at least many, Americans now understand the role that Confederate memorials and monuments played in the consolidation of ‘Lost Cause’ ideology, which was a concerted campaign to shift the memory and meaning of the Civil War away from themes of slavery and emancipation (which manifestly were the primary cause and consequence of the war) to things like “state’s rights” and the gallantry of ordinary soldiers. People are also increasingly aware that most Confederate monuments and memorials were not built in the immediate aftermath of the war but a generation later, in the years between 1890 and 1915. This was the same period that saw the violent restoration of white supremacy in the southern states, including formal disfranchisement of black voters, the creation of legal segregation and the lurid horror of lynching. Understanding that historical context makes it a lot harder to claim that these monuments and memorials are simply “heritage,” innocent of any racial meaning.

Given what you’ve just said, I suppose the question is not simply why these monuments are coming down today but why it took so long. Why is this happening now?

The short answer is that the stories these monuments told – that the Civil War was a romantic clash between heroes in blue and gray, that the attempt to extend full citizenship to the formerly enslaved during Reconstruction had been folly, that white supremacy was the natural order of things ­– were widely believed, and not only in the South. It has taken a long time to expunge these notions from American culture and politics. I’m not sure we’re completely there yet.




James Campbell

(Image credit: Leah Campbell)