The Relics of the Confederacy Burn

In Depth
The Relics of the Confederacy Burn
Women lay wreaths at a UDC memorial to the Confederate dead at Shiloh. Image:AP

As protests swelled around America in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a common theme emerged among the targets in southern states: Confederate monuments. Activists in Birmingham, Alabama toppled one statute and attempted to bring down an obelisk, the Confederate Sailors and Soldiers Monument, that had been the subject of court battles; it’s now been removed by the mayor, who promised the crowd he’d finish the job, leaving behind a pile of dirt and rubble. Another group tore down a statue of Robert E. Lee outside a high school in Montgomery. A protestor spray-painted a monument on the campus of Ole Miss tagging it with the phrase “spiritual genocide,” and several sites were tagged along Richmond’s Monument Avenue, created to honor the so-called heroes of the Confederacy and studded with lionizing statutes of such men as Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart and Jefferson Davis, both of whom are now sporting new graffiti.

Most symbolically, though, protestors left their mark on the institution that has done much to perpetuate the Lost Cause mythology that encouraged those statues and, in many cases, installed them: The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). Founded as a social organization for women to support still-living Confederate veterans and to glorify their memory, it’s now a membership organization open to descendants of Confederate veterans and those who gave “material aid to the cause.” It is consequently an almost entirely white institution. Their Richmond headquarters, dedicated in 1957, burned briefly earlier this week and was covered in graffiti. It was an unsurprising choice of target, and a reminder of the centuries-long legacy protestors are fighting and how we came to live in a country where “Black Lives Matter” can be a controversial statement.

Founded in 1894, the UDC’s explicit purpose was “to collect and preserve the material for a truthful history of the war between the Confederate States and the United States of America,” as well as honoring the memory of those who fought for the Confederacy and the women who supported them. For the UDC, “truthful history” meant the perpetuation of Lost Cause mythology; it was their guiding mission, and they were wildly successful.

Chapters located across the United States installed Confederate monuments across the south, a deliberate statement about who was in charge, an exclusionary claiming of public space solely for the use of white people. They shaped history books for children, determining how generations of southern whites would understand the Civil War. “They were the leaders of the Lost Cause into the 20th century, and they made it a movement about vindication,” historian Karen Cox told Vox in a video about the group’s history. And Lost Cause mythology redirected attention from slavery to Southerners’ “sacrifice” and “states’ rights,” sanitizing the brutal reality of the antebellum south, a regime built on the violent exploitation of black people. It was a vital plank in the Jim Crow worldview.

And, too, the protection of vulnerable white southern womanhood has been the pretext for innumerable acts of violence against black people over the decades. May 31st was the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, when white Oklahomans destroyed the community known as Black Wall Street in an orgy of racial violence and, yes, looting. That all started because a black elevator operator supposedly attacked a white woman—or maybe he just stepped on her foot, or touched her arm. Local whites essentially razed the prosperous neighborhood of Greenwood, a haven of black self-determination, to the ground, burning dozens of blocks and killing hundreds of black people, even dropping turpentine bombs from planes overhead. The Atlanta race riots of 1906 started with newspaper reports that alleged attacks by black men on white women, but in the context of ongoing political debates about, again, the prospect—the threat—of rising black prosperity. Between 20 to 45 black Atlantans died in the violence that followed, and it took years for the black community to recover.

Neither the Atlanta race riots nor the Tulsa Massacre were isolated incidents, but rather part of a broader historical pattern, as whites tightened their grip over the South in the form of Jim Crow and many black Americans fled for Northern cities. Tulsa came hard on the heels of the notorious Red Summer of 1919, a season of sustained racial violence in the wake of World War I, often against black veterans specifically, fueled by the unacceptable image of black men who’d served with distinction in Europe in American uniform—the Harlem Hellfighters were awarded the Croix de Guerre—returning to fight for their rights at home. It was an era of unrest—and it was also, perhaps, the height of the UDC’s power and sense of mission.

In their talk about all the noble sacrifices southern women had made for the cause and their work to enshrining a heroic vision of the Confederacy, the UDC was working to restore the considerable pre-war benefits that accrued to loyal white women. Before the Civil War, many white women had a financial interest in the institution of slavery, an ugly history thoroughly documented by scholar Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers in They Were Her Property. And long after the technical abolition of slavery, they benefited materially from a racial hierarchy that kept whites on top and black southerners on the bottom. During the creation of the modern labor law framework in the 1930s, for instance, southern lawmakers fought to exclude agricultural and domestic workers, helping ensure white southern women had continued access to a pool of cheap labor with little legal recourse to clean their floors, cook their food, and raise their children.

But what they really got, of course, was power—the power to point and say that a black man had harassed them or a black woman had displeased them and call down violent force that was either paramilitary or just plain state-sanctioned. It afforded them a place in the South’s racial hierarchy. Not the top spot, sure, but it’s the power of life and death nonetheless. Violence was committed in the name of white women, but it’s been committed at their behest, too. The woman whose accusation got 14-year-old Emmitt Till murdered admitted decades later she’d lied.

This isn’t a phenomenon of the 1910s, either, nor is it limited to the UDC. White women in the south but also nationwide have been the enforcers of white supremacy and the narratives that bolster it, as Elizabeth Gillespie McRae argues in Mothers of Massive Resistance, focusing on the battles over school desegregation. “White women took central roles in disciplining their communities according to Jim Crow’s rules and were central to massive resistance to racial equality,” McRae wrote, adding that, “These women guaranteed that racial segregation seeped into the nooks and crannies of public life and private matters, of congressional campaigns and PTA meetings, of cotton policy and household economies, and of textbook debates and daycare decisions.” It was the Daughters of the American Revolution that wouldn’t let Marian Anderson perform in their concert hall in 1939, not the UDC.

Nevertheless, the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy is a temple to white dominance, perpetuated by decades worth of moonlight and magnolia romanticism. It’s a giant, hulking reminder of the systems that got us to this place, and the ways that those systems shape the way we see and think, framing the conversation so that cops recklessly deploying deadly force with the full, militarized backing of the state embody order, and yet smashing in the window of a luxury handbag store is a form of violence. Lost Cause mythology helped create a world where the bodies of white women are a vital political prop for Donald Trump, but a team of cops can storm into Breonna Taylor’s apartment and shoot her dead and it’s just a mistake, not a murder. And fixing this requires a clear-eyed reckoning with how we got here.

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