The bringing down of a nineteenth century moment dedicated to white supremacy and terrorism in New Orleans last week has reminded all of us of the ways in which Civil War and Reconstruction still loom large in American memory. Arguing over old neo-Confederate monuments, or state support for flying the Confederate flag, has a new lease on life in both an “Age of Trump” and an “Age of Black Lives Matter.” That the nation is at a crossroads of race and memory right now—just as the United States wrestles with both the legacy of Barack Obama and the presidency of Donald Trump—is not a surprise. But events since the Charleston massacre of 2015 prove that the debate over memory in American society is never-ending.
Media coverage of the event, to an extent, shows how this fight over memorialization is one that will continue for the long term. References to the monument as a “Civil War” memorial or a “Confederate” memorial are wrong. The monument, dedicated to the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874, reminds us of the destruction of Reconstruction governments across the South. That this was done through terrorism and the murder of Republican officials and African American men and women was valorized by monuments such as the one recently removed in New Orleans.
So, no, this is not a “Confederate” monument. But it is, for all intents and purposes, a reminder of how the United States lost the peace after the Civil War.
Mississippi, meanwhile, continues a debate over the inclusion of the Confederate battle flag in its state flag. A debate that began in 2015, just as South Carolina was taking down its Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds, Mississippi’s debate is an even fiercer version of the debates about the flag and its symbolism that have raged on and off in states such as Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina for decades. Remember that Mississippi’s state flag has had the same design since 1894. The Lost Cause has a hold on Mississippi that will not be easy to shake—recall the uproar that took place when the University of Mississippi took down the state flag in 2015 (and Mississippi State and other state schools there followed suit).
Memory occupies an important part of the American civil religion. As with any other nation, the myths and legends we tell us are a part of what makes America “America” are crucial to understand. Confederate flags represent an understanding of American history that erases Reconstruction, deifies belief in the Lost Cause, and obscures the political problem of slavery as the chief cause of the Civil War. I am unsure of how much longer the Confederate flag, Southern monuments, and other representations of a white supremacist view of the past will be with us. But it will be a long, tiring campaign to save a different, more honest interpretation of the past for future generations.
One merely wishes each Confederate monument could be replaced with that of a Southern Unionist, African American soldier, or a Reconstruction-era African American politician. An honest, forthright conversation about the monuments and flags that are with us is, currently, the best we can hope for. And the most we can fight for.