Editor’s Note: Manisha Sinha is the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut and the author of “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Exactly one year after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that left counterprotester Heather Heyer dead and many others wounded, and during which two state police troopers also died in a helicopter crash, the nation is still grappling to address the issues and forces that the rally unleashed. This was not the first time white supremacists had wrought havoc in the country.
As has been widely reported, the “Unite the Right 2” rally in Washington was a bust for the neo-Nazis. About two dozen white nationalists – far short of the hundreds projected by organizer Jason Kessler – found themselves overwhelmingly outmatched by throngs of counterprotesters. But, while the show of support for anti-racism was powerful to see, the low turnout on the other side isn’t a reason to stop paying attention. As the chilling “Frontline”/ProPublica documentary “Documenting Hate” shows, hate groups are on the rise in America and they have made political rallies an opportunity for a show of force before. With the midterms in full swing, there will be plenty of opportunities for them to use to make a further push. The problem with racialized hate in America is that it is not going anywhere.
Most still remember vividly the killings committed by Dylann Roof in the historic Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the summer of 2015. However, the reconciliation and rapprochement in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, with relatives of the murdered calling for forgiveness, the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol grounds in Columbia, South Carolina, and President Barack Obama’s poignant rendition of “Amazing Grace,” did not follow the killings in Charlottesville. Even before Charlottesville, organized groups of right wing hate groups had provoked violence in California and elsewhere, as “Documenting Hate” reveals.
While some cities and mayors have responded to these demonstrations of visceral racism courageously by taking down Confederate statues, the seeds of hate sown by Charlottesville have also flowered. Neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate groups have marched – or attempted to march – in Murfreesboro, Shelbyville, Knoxville, and Memphis, Tennessee and elsewhere to protest the removal of Confederate statues as they did in Charlottesville but without the resulting tragic consequences. Racist right-wing groups have continued to hold rallies, most recently in Portland, Oregon and of course in Washington.
As at Charlottesville, they have been met by counter-protests composed of students, citizens, activists, and members of Antifa, a group originally organized in the 1930s to stand up to the threat of fascism in Nazi Germany. Today in the US, the group aims to disrupt neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and some of their members embrace radical or militant tactics to achieve that goal. The fact that far-right forces today feel emboldened to stage public demonstrations and that their rhetoric has entered mainstream political discourse ought to give us pause. Today, we have self-avowed Nazis and white supremacists running for elections in GOP primaries and at times even winning them, despite condemnation and withheld support by mainstream GOP campaign committees.
The silver lining in this dismal picture of rising hatred and intolerance has been the growing recognition that if hardened racists are rallying to the defense of Confederate monuments and statues, perhaps they are not just innocent representations of southern heritage. Indeed, many historians, including myself, have written that the Confederacy was founded on a commitment to racial slavery and that monuments to it, which still litter our public spaces, arose to uphold the brutal Jim Crow regime of the New South in the late 19th century and as a symbol of massive resistance to the civil rights movement in the 20th century.
African-Americans had long protested these statues, from young black schoolgirls, who chipped away at the proslavery John C. Calhoun’s statue in Charleston so that it had to be put on an 80-foot pedestal, to the 15-year NAACP boycott of South Carolina for flying the Confederate battle flag on state grounds that ended in 2015, after the flag came down. Recently, Confederate statues like the Silent Sam statue at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Virginia, have been painted red, literally and figuratively bathed in blood, by students and grassroots activists.
The debate over Confederate statues is more than symbolic. They certainly do not represent history but its misuse, the “propaganda of history” as the great black intellectual and activist W.E.B. Du Bois put it, to describe the assiduous efforts of many to rewrite the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Only recently have memorials to the national horror of lynching in Montgomery, Alabama, modeled after the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington and markers of Emmett Till’s lynching in Mississippi (which have been repeatedly vandalized) appeared. Charlottesville has finally led to a broader, public reckoning of how to deal with these symbols.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s 2017 speech on the removal of statues of Confederate generals in his city is a model of historical accuracy and moral acuity. In New York, Mayor Bill De Blasio approved the removal of the statue of America’s own Josef Mengele, Dr. James Marion Sims of Alabama, who experimented without anesthesia on enslaved black and poor immigrant women, from its perch in Central Park. The city of Memphis finally removed the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader, Confederate general who massacred black Union troops, and a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan. Memphis also took down statues of Jefferson Davis, president of the misbegotten southern Confederacy, thanks to the Take ‘Em Down movement (whose leader, Tami Sawyer, was just elected to local office in Memphis).
In response to some of these efforts at removal, Republican-dominated state legislatures in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia have passed laws making the taking down of Confederate statues illegal. The state government of Tennessee, in gross violation of the norms of local democracy, has also decided to punish the city of Memphis financially for its actions. In Austin, Texas, the University of Texas acted decisively to remove all Confederate statues from its campus but they still defile the state capitol grounds across town. The fact that Confederate statues in New Orleans and Baltimore had to be taken down in the dead of night and amid threats of violence also shows that white supremacists and neo-Confederates have been quite successful at sowing discord and intimidation.
The faces of white supremacy have been brought home to most Americans, whether it is random people calling the police on black people in schools, parks, streets, coffee shops, and stores or the screaming, hate filled visages of neo-Nazis. Since Charlottesville, according to “Documenting Hate,” there has been a dramatic growth in neo-Nazi groups and hate crimes across the country. The Confederate statues of Lee and Stonewall Jackson, the lightning rod for the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, were shrouded until a judge ordered the tarps removed earlier this year. The city council that had voted for the removal of the statues before the riot has its hands tied by court ordered injunctions and state law. Until we truly reckon with the history and legacy of slavery and the Civil War, Confederate statues will remain a rallying point for white supremacists.