I have tried to avoid saying much about the “Confederate statues” kerfuffle. That’s partly because the issue is more complicated than it’s often made out to be.

But it’s also because I was on the wrong side, at least when I was a proud Southern teenager growing up in rural central Florida. I was leader of my Boy Scout Troop, and we flew two flags from the posts of the leadership tent. One US flag, one Confederate battle flag.

Why? If you had asked me then I would have said it reflected the dual character of “our” citizenship: Loyalty to the nation (American), and recognition of a proud heritage (Southern).  Sure, there is some irony in displaying together these two banners that once represented opposite sides in a war, but that was the point: you can be both.

Besides, I might have said, the war wasn’t even about slavery. Northern states had previously asserted the right to secede. Further, self-determination is one of the core principles of democracy.  If the United States says the country of Georgia can secede from the Soviet Union, why can’t the state of Georgia secede from our Union?

Finally, many Confederate soldiers were poor farmers who never owned slaves. Their bravery and their loyalty to their states should be honored, no matter how misguided the focus of that loyalty may have been.

Same with the statues. Statues of Confederate war heroes safeguard the memory of a willingness to fight and die for a cause. Even if the cause was misguided, the sacrifice should be remembered.

That’s what I would have said in 1974. By the time I was 20, I had changed my mind. The war was about slavery, and the Confederate flag was coopted by white supremacists in the 1920s and 1930s. Since then, the flag has meant white supremacy to (almost) everyone who sees it.

Charlottesville

If you doubt the justification for this popular meaning, consider what happened in Charlottesville in August of this year.  A group of “heritage” supporters, decked out in authentic Confederate uniforms, showed up at the “Unite the Right” rally. And they saw actual Nazis and overt white supremacy banners. If it were true that the Confederate heritage folks reject any association with Nazis, it would have been a good idea not to associate with Nazis.  Instead, they marched together.

If you poison a bottle of wine, it may look and taste like wine, and you may in your heart mean for it to be wine. But’s it’s a mixture, and some of that mix is poison. If “heritage” becomes “blut und boden” then you’ve lost control of the symbol.

In fact, in some ways the Confederate flag has morphed into an abstract international F-you symbol.  I’ve seen cars with Confederate battle flag stickers in Munich, where the swastika is illegal. In Guanajuato, Mexico, I saw a black, fully tricked out, lowered short-bed pickup truck with two enormous flagpoles sporting a pair of giant Confederate battle flags. The flags fluttered as the truck rolled slowly down the boulevard, blaring norteño music from huge loudspeakers. What the hell?  That symbol is gone. Put it down.

The Question We Should Ask Ourselves

But the statues … I still defended the statues. Many, like “Silent Sam,” the anonymous CSA rifleman standing at the main street entry to UNC-Chapel Hill here in North Carolina, explicitly honor an abstraction: the war dead. In the case of Silent Sam, the dedication reads:

To the sons of the University who entered the war of 1861–65 in answer to the call of their country and whose lives taught the lesson of their great commander that duty is the sublimest word in the English language.

When new first year students — few of whom are native Southerners — arrive at Duke, I take a small busload to Chapel Hill, and then to Durham’s (recently pulled down) courthouse statue.

I ask them a question. But over time I realized I was also asking myself. My question goes like this:

In Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, there were bad people, called Nazis.  Most Germans were not Nazis, but because of a sense of national loyalty and duty, young Germans fought for their homeland and died. We may not admire their genocidal cause, but you might say their patriotism was admirable.

Imagine that 50 years after the war, in 1995, groups of Germans who felt strongly about the sacrifice of their grandfathers, uncles, and husbands got together and put up statues to honor the dead. The statues would be in full uniform, of course, displaying the swastika that was the flag and symbol appropriated by their leader, Adolph Hitler. How should we respond to that?

Would that really be a way of honoring the sacrifice of the dead in the 1940s, or would it be a way of reasserting German nationalism and racial superiority?

Now, there would have been a furious controversy if Germans had put up Nazi memorials in 1995, after the reunification of the two Germanys, and fifty years after WWII.

When the Statues Went Up

Remember, “Reconstruction” — the formal occupation of the defeated South by US federal troops — ended in 1878, and the last vestiges of civil rights gains from African-Americans were once again eliminated by about 1900.  “Jim Crow” laws, stripping rights to vote, own property, or participate in society as equal citizens, were fully implemented by 1905. The complex set of social, political, and economic segregations were in place by 1910.

But only then, and in the decades following, were the Confederate statues put up.  Silent Sam was erected in 1913.  The Durham County Courthouse statue was dedicated in 1924. If we would have questions about Nazi statues in Bavaria 50 years after the war, we must have the same questions, and for the same reasons, in the American South.

Take down those statues. Put them in museums, preserve the memory of what they symbolize, but don’t give them places of honor. Because the statues don’t honor the brave sacrifice of the soldiers in the era of the Confederacy. They honor the cowards and racists who re-enslaved black citizens in the era of Jim Crow.