In a twist of fate, the push to preserve Confederate monuments that has become a rallying cry for white supremacists and white nationalists is facing more resistance from activists and lawmakers than ever after a deadly riot unfolded at a protest defending a statue of Robert E. Lee.
The so-called alt-right is a loosely connected conservative network of individuals and groups espousing racist and anti-Semitic nationalist ideologies. After a “Unite the Right” rally last week in Charlottesville protesting the removal of a statue of the Confederate general ended in deadly clashes between counter-protestors and “alt-right” protestors, lawmakers and activists around the country have come together with swift impunity for the growing public-facing activities of such ideologues. In the process, they’re striking at the heart of the alt-right’s attempt to rebrand their push for white supremacy and white nationalism as an effort to preserve American history.
Confederate monuments still dot the nation, with the highest concentration of them still standing in the South. But the dramatic rush by lawmakers to remove such statues—which come after sustained efforts by activists to remove the markers of reverence to slavery and the Confederate leaders who fought and, in some cases, died to uphold it—signals a shift in direct reaction both to what unfolded in Charlottesville and how the nation’s very own Commander-in-Chief responded.
In Durham, North Carolina, a statue of a Confederate soldier was toppled Monday by a group of activists. When police demanded that those responsible come forward, a slew of those who had been present reported to the station in a moving gesture of solidarity and protest. In Phoenix, Arizona, activists tarred and feathered a monument to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh Wednesday arranged for the removal of a statue of Confederate leaders Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson in the dead of night. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered two streets at a Brooklyn Army base to be renamed and the removal of two busts of Confederate generals from the CUNY Hall of Fame for Great Americans. In Ohio, Willoughby South High School ditched its Confederate mascot, and in Warren a monument to Lee was removed from a street corner. In Madison, Wisconsin, the Mayor is removing Confederate monuments from a cemetery.
In Congress, a swift effort is mounting to make the same amends. The Congressional Black Caucus is pushing to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) is taking the lead on the effort in the Senate with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) support in the House. Rep. Yvette Clark (D-NY) also plans to introduce legislation that would force the Defense Department to rename military installations and property named after Confederate leaders. “As recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have made perfectly clear,” Clarke said in a statement, “these monuments are nothing more than symbols of white supremacy and a pretext for the violent imposition of an evil ideology that should never have persisted into the Twenty-First Century.”
The Mayor of Charlottesville has also submitted a final word on the matter, ordering the removal of the statue in Emancipation Park. “Whether they go to museums, cemeteries, or other willing institutions, it is clear that they no longer can be celebrated in shared civic areas,” Mike Signer said in a statement. “We can, and we must, respond by denying the Nazis and the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) and the so-called alt-right the twisted totem they seek.”
President Donald Trump failed to unilaterally condemn the two-day series of disturbing events in Charlottesville, which began with a tiki-torch march on the University of Virginia campus in which those gathered chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil,” a Nazi chant originating in pre-Holocaust Germany. Those protestors harassed, threatened and attacked counter-protestors gathered on the mostly-vacant campus, even going so far as to douse them in lighter fluid in the midst of hundreds of open flames. The next day, the rally in Emancipation Park was declared a state of emergency before the speakers even took the mic—among them Richard Spencer, a leader in the white nationalist movement and outspoken white supremacist, and David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Later in the afternoon, a man noted for his neo-Nazi tendencies drove his car into a crowd of counterprotestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and leaving over 30 more injured.
In a series of statements on what Attorney General Jeff Sessions—who Trump himself nominated to his post—called an act of domestic terrorism, Trump attempted to equivocate the aggression of counter-protestors with the violent beliefs and behaviors of neo-Nazis and Klansmen, insisting that there was blame on “many sides” and that there were “fine people” protesting the removal of the statue alongside those with swastikas tattooed on their chests.
Trump also tweeted that he was “sad” to see the statues coming down, which echoes the sentiments of alt-right groups who have banded together in this fight in an attempt to paint the “cause” of upholding Confederate history and perspective as one of personal pride. We are expected to believe that this fight is part of their extended fight for their identity—but even living descendants of Confederate leaders agree that it’s time to put to rest the regressive reverence of their ancestors.
“If it’s going to cause this kind of hatred and violence,” Robert E. Lee V, a descendent of the Confederate general, told The Washington Post about the statue at the center of what unfolded in Charlottesville, “take it down immediately.” Another of Lee’s descendents, Karen Finney, wrote in an essay for the same paper that Lee’s legacy should be “honored or defended.”
Two of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson’s great-great-grandsons echoed her declaration in their own open letter for Slate, writing that they are “ashamed” of the monument honoring Jackson that remains in Richmond, Virginia. “As two of the closest living relatives to Stonewall, we are writing today to ask for the removal of his statue, as well as the removal of all Confederate statues from Monument Avenue,” they said. “They are overt symbols of racism and white supremacy, and the time is long overdue for them to depart from public display.”