Violence and death in Charlottesville, Virginia, sparked by the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue and the destruction of a monument to Confederate soldiers by a group of protesters in Durham, North Carolina, have again thrown existing monuments and markers into the public’s eye.
As municipalities across the country consider plans of action for Confederate monuments, those advocating removing them say they glorify traitors who fought for a white supremacist cause, while those fighting to keep them say they mark an important era in the nation’s development.
Pro: Let them stand
Historian and former teacher Joyce Kistner, who previously served as president of the Bristol chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, spearheaded efforts a few years ago to restore and preserve the Confederate monument in Bristol, Virginia’s, Cumberland Square Park.
The monument was built in 1920, paid for by a former Confederate colonel and Bristol, Tennessee’s mayor. It is dedicated “In memory of the brave men and noble women of Tennessee and Virginia from 1861 to 1865.” A marble statue of a Confederate soldier leaning against his rifle stands at the top of its pillar, above a carving of a billowing Confederate battle flag.
The monument was originally placed outside the city’s courthouse, but when the courthouse was razed in 1970, it was moved to a spot in front of the train depot. Years of soot and diesel exhaust took their toll on the white stone, and four years ago the Daughters of the Confederacy held a fundraiser to clean it and again move it to the park it now occupies.
“The inscription tells what Bristol and what our forefathers thought about the Confederacy,” Kistner said. “It stands in respect for the men and women who lost their lives in the City of Bristol in standing up for what we believed was right during the Civil War.”
Kistner, who said she was speaking only for herself, noting that the Daughters of the Confederacy were a strictly apolitical organization, said she believed a majority of Bristol’s residents would be against anyone trying to destroy the statue, although she said she didn’t object to it moving into a courthouse or museum.
She condemned the protesters’ action in Durham, saying the destruction of the Confederate statue showed “the weak condition of our country and a lack of respect for our history.”
The principles soldiers fought for boiled down to economics, she said.
“The North was more prosperous, well-to-do people, they didn’t need to hire slaves to help them,” she said, adding that, in the historical accounts she’s read, most slaves in Virginia were treated well.
“They might destroy the visual signs of the Confederacy, but they won’t destroy its meaning and the way people tried to improve our country by the things they did during the Confederacy,” she said. “We should be trying to improve things, not tear them down.
“People today have such disrespect. They have no moral guidelines to follow.”
Con: Tear them down
Ralph Davis, a leader in the Johnson City/Washington County Branch of the NAACP, said monuments glorifying the Confederacy and its cause are hurtful to African Americans and have no place in public spaces.
“These are symbols that were part of a bad time in America where we were fighting against each other,” he said. “The Confederate states decided to pull away from the Union, and those symbols, the men in those statues, they just don’t represent America, not the America we want.”
For Davis and many African Americans, the Confederate states and the lasting memorials to their soldiers represent the idea that people with skin colors other than white are inferior and can be bought, sold and treated like property.
When public buildings and parks have monuments calling those soldiers brave and dedicated fondly to their memories, it’s alienating, he said. It’s like the government officials and offices in those buildings aren’t there to represent him.
“Personally, I don’t have any problem when I see people going down the street in their trucks with Confederate flags flying on them. I don’t have a problem with that; they’re showing what they believe in, and that’s OK,” Davis said. “But when they start putting things like that on property where we pay taxes — we do not want to see those symbols in our government offices and facilities.”
He took direct aim at a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest displayed in the state Capitol. A group of protesters and Gov. Bill Haslam both said the bust should be removed, but the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act passed last year by the General Assembly requires a two-thirds vote by the state Historical Commission to remove it and other artifacts related to the Civil War.
Allowing the bust to remain in the seat of power for the state, after its subject’s leadership role in an organization founded to harass and intimidate African Americans, is demoralizing, Davis said.
“After the incident in Charlottesville, it really made me afraid,” he said. “I’m old enough that I remember the riots in the ’60s. I’m really afraid for the young people — not just African Americans, but all young people. If you’re a minority, whether you’re gay, Muslim, or whatever, it’s a scary time right now. I’m more afraid right now than I have been in a while.”