They are presented as being part of a continuous heritage, but the idea that these symbols have anything to do with anything but racial reaction is wrong.
Joseph Lowndes on the statues of Confederate generals (Why is the US still fighting the Civil War?)
Like most of the other monuments to the confederacy’s “lost cause”, the statue in Charlottesville was not built in the immediate aftermath of that war. Rather, it was commissioned more than half a century later in 1917, and erected in 1924. It was part of a wave of statue-building in the south that took place between the late 1890s and 1920, according to research from the Southern Poverty Law Center. That wave crested in about 1911.
According to Joseph Lowndes, a political scientist at the University of Oregon and author of two books on the US’s racial politics and the south, the timing of these enthusiasms is not accidental. “The statues go up in moments of racial reaction.”
The earlier craze was the moment when Lowndes says, “the Jim Crow order was really being built in the south”. So-called Jim Crow laws formally segregated public schools, public transport and public spaces generally in former confederate states. Laws mandated that black people and white people use separate restaurants, restrooms and drinking fountains. According to Lowndes, the Jim Crow phenomenon was a reaction to the inroads made by the populist movement, which had fleetingly created political alliances of poor blacks and whites against the rich southern planter class. Lowndes says that southern elites sought to “take blacks out of the electorate and segregate public space” in order to “redivide the black and white core” of the south’s working class and small farmers. The monuments were also elements of this divide-and-rule strategy. They were ultimately built for a white audience, as “elements of a culture that directed whites towards beliefs that aligned them with the planters”, says Lowndes. “It was a political project. Any political project requires symbols, and an imaginary.”