In the wake of the incident in Charlottesville and a few cities’ subsequent decisions to remove their much-maligned Confederate statues, there has been a lot of discussion about the preservation of history. Many people in favor of leaving the statues in place make the argument that the removal of these monuments is tantamount to an erasure of southern history, as if, without occasionally running into a bronze likeness of Robert E. Lee, we’ll just plumb forget that the Civil War ever happened. But, as a new video from Vox points out, the construction of these monuments rarely had to do with the remembrance of historical figures and more often coincided with periods of racial conflict, standing as emblematic reminders of what some people saw as better times.
Using data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Vox takes a look at 1,503 statues, schools, state parks, and military bases honoring Confederate figures over the past 150 years. While a handful of these monuments do actually date back to the period following the Civil War and thus could be argued to have more historical significance, the vast majority of them were built decades later, during the height of the Jim Crow Era. The graph’s highest peak occurs just after the formation of the NAACP, continuing into the 1920s when there was a resurgence in popularity of the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout the modern civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there was another surge in Confederate monuments, especially following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, when it became popular to name schools after Confederate generals.
Presented as such, the evidence speaks for itself. The majority of these monuments were not conceived for educational purposes but were erected by white southerners as reactionary gestures to the changing world around them. If anything, they stand as historical monuments to periods of intense racism and racial violence in the south.