Grappling With Emblems Of Our Past: Debate Over Removing Confederate Monuments

Jul 24, 2015

In recent weeks, the battle over Confederate imagery has focused mainly on a flag, but for some the debate naturally extends to other symbols they see as offensive. As Arkansas, like many Southern states, continues to grapple with emblems of its past, the question arises: To what extent are monuments in public places an issue?

On the grounds of the Arkansas Capitol building, there are two statues commemorating the Confederacy, one to the women at home. Robert Miller with the neo-secessionist, League of the South reads from its plaque.

“'Whose jealous faith in our cause shown a guiding star undimmed by the darkest clouds of war. Whose fortitude sustained them under which all the privations to which they were subjected.'”

As does Representative Fred Love, "'and whose patriotism will teach their sons to emulate the deeds of their sires,' man.”

Love represents a majority African-American district in Little Rock and was at the forefront of a failed effort this Spring to disjoin the dual state observance of Robert E Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“This is indoctrination. It is definitely a sign that we will never leave, we will never conclude this battle,” said Love.

Across the Capitol lawn, within eyesight of a monument commemorating the integration of Little Rock's Central High School, sits a dedication to the soldiers that waged a war of separation.

Miller, who heads the Arkansas chapter of what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls the pre-eminent neo-Confederate hate group says he’s proud of the display.

“The attempt to remove and erase from the public view, things like the Confederate flag and Confederate memorials is nothing more than cultural genocide,” said Miller. "It’s not just an attack on pieces of marble and granite on the statehouse. It’s not just an attack on a piece of fabric in South Carolina. We hold it to be an attack on the Southern people for whom the flag and for whom the monuments represent.”

Representative Love reads the inscription on the Confederate soldiers memorial with a different tone.

“Our furled banner wreathed with glory and though conquered we adore it. Weep for those who fell before it. Pardon those who trailed and tore it.”

Both Love, as well as Dale Charles with the Arkansas NAACP, say Confederate symbolism only stands for the Southern people if you exclude black people from what is Southern.

“There’s no way it could be for black people. Black people can’t celebrate their own demise,” Charles said. “This was a time when they was separated from their families. They was worked many, many hours and they were never compensated. When you start talking about Southern heritage, that don’t include black people. That was Southern white heritage because they were the ones that benefited from that, not black people. Black people were the victims.”

Dr. Carl Moneyhon, a historian at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a nauthoritative published voice on Arkansas’s civil war and reconstruction period, says the idea that Confederate monuments were intended to honor anyone other than whites would have been a foreign concept to those that built them.

“If you had asked a white person in 1890 in Louisiana or Arkansas ‘what was Southern?’ blacks would not have been included as part of it. So, no, these monuments are a celebration of white Confederate culture.” Moneyhon continued, “the kind of thing you see today where whites begin to talk about black Confederates, you would have never seen that.”

He contends the proliferation of monuments from the 1880s to 1930s by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy generally distorts the divided realities of Civil War society. Moneyhon says the erection of such displays may also have been a sign of Southern power brokers re-asserting themselves following the decline of Northern influence after reconstruction; something that may have paradoxically helped bring Southern states back into the fold.

“You almost have to give them some sense of prestige. Some sense of having actually done something honorable. In a sense you forget about why the war happened. You incidentally forget about emancipation. You forget about the black troops that served in the war and in Arkansas we even forget about the Union troops that fought from Arkansas and instead what you do is create monuments to Southern heroism,” said Moneyhon.

As few as two monuments to Union soldiers exist in Arkansas despite the state having the highest per capita enrollment of any Southern state in the Union ranks, according to Moneyhon. He argues Arkansas effectively went from being “a divided, frontier state into a Confederate state” as historical memory was recast in the decades following the war. 

Though recent efforts by the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission and others involved with the placing of markers have included numerous references to Union participation and African-Americans. In recent years the MacArthur Museum of Military History in Little Rock brought in the flag of Federal troops in an Iowa regiment that captured, or liberated, the arsenal grounds, on which a statue to Confederate soldiers now stands among other historical markers.

However the professor, who also serves in various capacities with the Encyclopedia of Arkansas and the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, concludes monuments have not served as a rallying point like various Confederate flags - resurfacing in the 1940s as a symbol of opposition to expanded civil rights.

“I have mixed feelings about the statues to be frank. I think they’re fairly harmless. I think most people don’t look at them and see anything. They’re just there,” he said.

Yet the mayors of Memphis and New Orleans have called for such statues to be removed and in Georgia the NAACP wants Stone Mountain – the Mt. Rushmore of Confederate leaders – to be sandblasted. The body of Forrest City, Arkansas’s namesake – civil war general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathaniel Bedford Forrest – interred just across the Mississippi River in Tennessee may even be exhumed from a Memphis park.

And, monuments across the South have been vandalized by those associating with the Black Lives Matter movement, often in the form of spray painted slogans. A reminder the battle over symbols extends to what opponents call systemic racial inequalities in criminal justice, education and economic well being.

In Arkansas, voices opposed to Confederate displays haven’t gained nearly as much traction but they’re still here.

The state NAACP and Representative Love say Arkansas's black community does object to the monuments but the challenge of doing anything about them seems insurmountable.

“The powers that be need to look at both those monuments and look at the flag and correct this so that Arkansas won’t be the lone wolf out there holding on to the past, the dark days of our history. We need to come into the light,” said Charles.

“You can hide behind 'there’s a first amendment right to have things on the Capitol grounds,' you can hide behind a lot of different things,” said Love referring to the Confederate soldiers statue. “But that symbol right there is not a welcoming symbol, not only to African-Americans but to a number of people. They have no place at the Capitol.”

But many of those who are sensitive to the ways in which Confederate imagery can be used for hateful ends think removing monuments goes too far. One example is Nate Bell, Love’s legislative colleague in trying to end the dual observance of Lee and King as a state holiday.

“When it becomes offensive is when items are currently used to justify racism or symbols of racism. Those things are more hurtful. Historical monuments, I personally have not talked to anyone who could make a solid case for why that would bother them,” says Bell.

Bell who has been threatened with violence by people claiming to belong to the LOS says it can be a tough line to walk with a purge of history as a consequence of overreaction.

“As a Christian, I look at several places in the Bible and Paul in particular frequently said that, ‘If I know something offends my brother, even if it’s okay, I probably shouldn’t do it.' I think that’s something that is many times lost in the political discussion.”