The Confederacy, it seems, has fallen out of fashion.
It only took 156 years.
It also took several high-profile actions and events — including the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville — to galvanize opposition to the symbols of white supremacy that stood unashamed and unchallenged in public squares across the South.
But society has changed — society is always changing — and with it, the level of tolerance for symbols of the Confederacy.
In 2020, 168 symbols of the Confederacy were removed from public spaces, according to a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Twenty-four of those were in North Carolina; 71 in Virginia. Alabama and Texas tied for third with 12 each.
By comparison, the center’s report indicates that only 58 monuments came down between 2015 and 2019.
In Winston-Salem, the Confederate monument that stood downtown since 1905 came down in March 2019 after the city declared it a public nuisance.
A Confederate statue that stood in Asheville since 1897 — a 75-foot obelisk that honored politician and white supremacist Zebulon Baird Vance — was removed last month and is slated to be destroyed rather than moved to another location.
Last year, a Confederate statue that was the site of Ku Klux Klan ceremonies in the 1920s and ’30s was removed from downtown Lexington after standing since 1905.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, committees are meeting to discuss new names for buildings that had been named for individuals — Charles B. Aycock, Julian S. Carr and Josephus Daniels — who had ties to white supremacy and racism.
In Graham, the N.C. NAACP recently sued to have a 1914-dedicated Confederate statue removed. The monument — currently surrounded by an iron fence that cost $32,000 to install last month — has been a fl ash-point between protesters and counter-protesters and police for months.
“Specifically, the monument exalts the causes of slavery, secession, and white supremacy. It causes particular pain to Black residents. And it wastes taxpayer dollars on security costs that will be unnecessary once the statue topped by an armed Confederate soldier is gone,” the North Carolina NAACP said in a news release.
In some ways Greensboro was ahead of the curve. There is no Aycock Middle School, nor an Aycock neighborhood nor an Aycock Auditorium anymore. Aycock Street no longer honors the segregationist governor of this state from 1893-1897, who advocated the disenfranchisement of Black voters. Instead, the street has been renamed for Josephine Boyd, the first Black graduate of what is now known as Grimsley High School.
As for Confederate monuments, after years of debate and pleading their cause, some might still insist that they are benign, meant to honor heritage and courage.
But they’ve failed to convince many Americans that they should share in that interpretation.
It’s no accident that these monuments were first installed around the beginning of the 20th century, accompanied by Jim Crow laws; they were meant to serve as reminders in their communities that white people still ruled supreme.
Monument supporters are wrong when they say their removals are attempts to “erase history.” Schools and museums will continue to teach the short-lived history of the Confederacy and the long-lived history of racism in America. And how many statues do you see of Richard Nixon? Has anyone forgotten him?
But they’re right about other objections they’ve expressed: There are more important issues to tackle than concrete images, including the bigotry they portray. White supremacy still exists and seems to be experiencing a surge in some quarters, sometimes in organized groups that threaten and practice violence. Economic inequity exists as the residue of advantages given to some and denied others because of their race.
Removing these statues won’t change things, certainly not overnight.
We still prefer not having them in our town squares, as if the figures and ideals they portray deserve praise. Let them stand in museums as educational tools or in cemeteries as symbols of the dead.