Confederate Symbols and White Supremacy
The honoring of men who represented that cause . . . will ultimately result in handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood.
John Mitchell Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, 1890
Between 1869 and 2015, over 750 Confederate monuments were dedicated on public property in the United States. The majority were installed between 1890 and 1960, decades marked by Jim Crow segregation, lynching, and violent resistance to the African American struggle for civil rights. These statues and symbols did not simply honor Confederate soldiers. They also celebrated, affirmed, and reinforced the Confederate cause: white supremacy.
Since 2015, over 150 Confederate monuments have come down—some by official order, others by acts of protest. The removal of these symbols is part of a larger reckoning with the historical legacies of racism, violence, and injustice in American society.
Recent movements to remove Confederate monuments and symbols from public places have shone a light on the white supremacist vision of American history they represent. The myth of the “Lost Cause,” promoted by white southern historians and heritage organizations starting in the late 1800s, defended the enslavement of African Americans, glorified Confederate leaders, and declared that the South had fought for a righteous cause. The Lost Cause myth also justified racial discrimination by depicting African Americans as unfit for citizenship. Hollywood films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939), which featured heroic white Confederates and racist stereotypes of African Americans, ingrained the Lost Cause view of the Civil War and Reconstruction in American popular culture.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in 1894, was an influential promoter of the Lost Cause. The UDC raised funds to install hundreds of Confederate monuments in public spaces such as parks, town squares, and courthouse lawns. They also created educational programs and textbooks that taught the Lost Cause version of the Civil War and Reconstruction to generations of southern children.
The oldest Black congregation south of Baltimore, Maryland, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was founded by free and enslaved African Americans in 1816. Over the next 150 years, Mother Emanuel served as a base for antislavery and civil rights activism. Its historic role in the Black freedom struggle was tragically recalled on June 17, 2015, when white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine church members—Cynthia Hurd, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Rev. DePayne Middleton, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. Sharonda Coleman Singleton, and Myra Thompson—during a Bible study meeting.
The massacre at Mother Emanuel demonstrated the persistent threat of white supremacist violence. The fact that the killer used the Confederate flag to promote his racist views drew national attention to the link between Confederate symbols and acts of hate. It also gave renewed urgency to a longstanding campaign to have the Confederate flag removed from the state capitol grounds in South Carolina.
On June 27, 2015, Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina State House and took down the Confederate flag. First raised over the state capitol in 1961 during a time of massive white resistance to racial desegregation, the flag had long been a target of civil rights protests, including a statewide economic boycott by the NAACP.
Newsome, an artist and community organizer, represented a group of activists who were moved to respond to the murder of nine church members at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Newsome’s act of civil disobedience, captured in photos and video, made her an icon of the modern antiracism movement. It also placed her in a long tradition of African American activists who have used civil disobedience to defy laws and systems that support white supremacy.
Two weeks after Newsome’s arrest, the Confederate flag was permanently removed from the state capitol grounds.
I could just feel like at that moment I really did symbolize the struggle. Like it wasn’t just Bree Newsome scaling the flagpole. This was like the struggle of all these generations of Black people to dismantle white supremacy.
For over a century, the Washington National Cathedral has played a prominent role in the nation’s spiritual and political life. In 2017, the Cathedral removed stained-glass windows honoring Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson that had been installed in 1953. The decision by the Cathedral leaders was prompted by the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—events that drew national attention to the embrace of Confederate symbols by white supremacists.
In 2023, the Cathedral dedicated new windows to replace the Lee-Jackson windows. Entitled the Now and Forever Windows, they are designed by Kerry James Marshall and accompanied by a poem by Elizabeth Alexander. The windows depict a civil rights march and honor the ongoing pursuit for racial justice.
Removal of the Confederate flag is not going to solve most of the severe tangible challenges facing our nation, including discrimination in our criminal justice system, economic system, employment, education, housing, health care, or other barriers to full and equal protection under the law and full first-class citizenship, but it does represent an end to a symbol of the state sponsored reverence of, and adherence to, the values that support slavery, domestic terrorism, and the hatred which has divided our country for too long.
NAACP resolution on removal of Confederate flag in South Carolina, 2015