The Confederacy's legacy: Should any of it stand?

Story highlights

  • Gordon Rhea: A reassessment of Confederate symbols is long overdue
  • He says many questions have to be answered to determine appropriate way to handle the symbols

Gordon Rhea is an attorney based in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, and an author of books on the history of the Civil War. He has lectured on military history at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, at several National Military Parks and at historical societies and Civil War round tables across the country. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The Confederacy's toxic spirit still casts a long shadow over the American South.

The sad history of Jim Crow and government-sanctioned terror that was inflicted on former slaves and their descendants should be a matter of shame for all Southerners.
I grew up in the segregated South of the 1950s and witnessed that heritage first-hand. The Confederate battle flag of my youth represented opposition to the goals of the civil rights movement, waving defiantly as Gov. George Wallace of Alabama proclaimed, "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!"
    The flag dominated Klu Klux Klan rallies and flew over whites protesting the sharing of water fountains, bathrooms, schools and bus seats with citizens of color.
    Gordon Rhea
    It came as no surprise when photographs surfaced of Dylann Roof -- the avowed white supremacist who murdered nine African Americans in cold blood at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston -- surrounded by Confederate battle flags. White supremacists have embraced the Confederate battle flag because it represented a nation that stridently and openly espoused their principles.
    In 1860, while the rest of the Western world followed an historic trajectory dedicated to abolishing slavery and expanding human rights, the Confederacy dedicated itself to the proposition that all men are not created equal; that some people have the right to own other people; that the owners deserve unfettered discretion to buy and sell the owned, to separate husbands from wives, children from mothers, and to administer beatings, whippings and other punishments at will; and that government's proper role is to preserve, nurture and facilitate that social arrangement.
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    As Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy's vice president, unambiguously proclaimed, "The Confederacy's foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."
    The recent murders in Charleston have sparked a discussion over the fate of modern symbols of the Confederacy.
    Should the Confederate flag be removed from the State House grounds in Columbia, South Carolina? Should Confederate symbols be erased from state flags? Should images of Confederate leaders be taken from government buildings, parks or other places of public display?
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    What should we do about streets, schools and public buildings named after Confederates? Or what about our military installations -- such as Fort Bragg, Fort Hood and Fort Benning, to name but a few -- that are named after Confederate generals whose main claim to glory involved killing soldiers in the United States armies?
    I believe that it is important to eliminate hurtful images that glorify or legitimize the Confederacy's disgraceful values. However, slavery and its aftermath are significant parts of our history that we should never forget. To what extent should we preserve symbols of the Confederacy for their educational value as reminders of that dark period in our nation's past?
    There are some bright lines.
    Individuals can choose whether to display Confederate flags on bumper stickers or T-shirts, or erect statues of Jefferson Davis on their lawns. Governments, however, should never display racially divisive symbols in a context that suggests legitimacy or approval. Applying that standard, Confederate flags, or state flags containing overtly Confederate designs, should never fly on state house grounds; they belong in museums or in battlefield parks.
    Similarly, statues of men such as Ku Klux Klan principal Nathan Bedford Forrest or the virulent white supremacist "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman are so intimately associated with white supremacy that they, too, have no place on state house grounds.
    Many sites, however, are not so clear-cut and require weighing multiple factors.
    What about Monument Avenue in Richmond, with its grand statues of General Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart and others? What about Stone Mountain, Georgia's monolithic portraits of Lee, Jackson and Jefferson Davis? What about the scores of statues of Confederate soldiers in front of county courthouses across the South?
    The balance will not always be easy, and judgments with respect to each site should be made on a case-by-case basis. Here are some of the questions that should be asked:
    Are the displays private or public? Does a significant segment of the local population find them offensive? What was the purpose for which they were erected? Do they have independent intrinsic historical value? Can they be used to educate, perhaps by adding signage explaining when and why they were erected, and their historical significance?
    My eyebrows raise whenever I walk past a statue of a Confederate soldier who fought for the "Glorious Cause." How would I feel if I were an African American and the "Glorious Cause" was the enslavement of my ancestors? Can the sting be lessened by a placard next to the statue? Is the statue valuable as a reminder of a darker time in our nation's history? Should it be moved to a local museum?
    As momentum increases across the South for removal of the Confederacy's historical artifacts, this is a conversation that we must now have. It will not be easy or clear cut, and communities will react differently when challenged to confront the painful past.
    There is little value in glossing over history or simply tearing down monuments that are part of a city's heritage.
    The best we can strive for is context, the entire complicated story and the understanding that it is sometimes appropriate to celebrate the bravery of men without endorsing the ill-conceived cause that drew them into battle.