Episode 5, Season 4
The Lost Cause narrative would have us believe that Confederate monuments have always been celebrated, but people have protested them since they started going up. Historian Karen Cox unpacks how the United Daughters of the Confederacy used propaganda to dominate generations of teachings about the Civil War through textbooks, legislation and popular culture—and how, after the war, the South and the North prized white reconciliation over justice for all.
Earn professional development credit for this episode!
Fill out a short form featuring an episode-specific question to receive a certificate. Click here.
Please note that because Learning for Justice is not a credit-granting agency, we encourage you to check with your administration to determine if your participation will count toward continuing education requirements.
- Learning for Justice: Toolkit for "States' Rights and 'Historical Malpractice'"
- Learning for Justice: Article, Black Students and Educators at Confederate-Named Schools
- Learning for Justice: Article, Charlottesville’s Zyahna Bryant Shall Lead
- Learning for Justice: Student Text, A Personal Mission: Sammy Younge Jr. (grades 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning for Justice: Student Text, New Orleans’ Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Address on the Removal of Four Confederate Statues (grades 9-12)
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I grew up watching TV, a lot of TV. My parents let me because it kept me out of the streets. And the streets of Brooklyn in the late ‘70s and ‘80s were no place for a little Black kid to be hanging out after school—and certainly no place for him to be hanging out after the streetlights flickered on.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Now I seriously doubt that many TV critics would consider that moment in time the Golden Age of the small screen. But I defy anyone to say it wasn’t the Golden Age of the TV theme song, especially for shows that Black people watched.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There was the toe tapping, uplifting theme song to The Jeffersons, the soul stirring intro to Good Times, and a little bit later came the theme song to A Different World—the Aretha Franklin version, of course.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I knew the lyrics to every one of these songs. I'd sing them when the shows came on and when they went off. I'd belt out a verse walking to school or waiting to catch the bus to church. And I'd break into full-throated renditions while playing skelly on the blacktop and shooting hoops on the playground.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I was not the only one. All of my friends—who hailed from every corner of the African Diaspora—knew the lyrics to these songs too. And we'd sing them together. If one person started, the rest of us would immediately join in. And it didn't matter if you could sing or not—and most of us couldn't. We just loved the songs and the shows that inspired them.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There was another show that I watched religiously as a little Black kid growing up in Brooklyn—The Dukes of Hazzard. Yup, The Dukes of Hazzard, starring country cousins Bo and Luke Duke, Daisy Duke with her trademark short-shorts, Uncle Jesse, Boss Hogg, Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane, and Cooter too! And don’t forget The General Lee—Bo and Luke’s 1969 orange Dodge Charger with the doors welded shut, the Confederate flag painted on the roof, and a horn that played "Dixie."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The Dukes of Hazzard premiered in 1979 on CBS, and ran for seven whole years, 142 episodes, and I promise you I watched every one. And just like The Jeffersons and Good Times, I knew the lyrics to this theme song too. We all did—and I still do.
Just the good ol' boys,
Never meanin’ no harm.
Beats all you never saw,
Been in trouble with the law
Since the day they was born.
Straightnin' the curves,
Flattenin' the hills.
Someday the mountain might get 'em
But the law never will.
Makin' their way
The only way they know how.
That's just a little bit more
Than the law will allow.
Just the good ol’ boys,
Wouldn’t change if they could.
Fightin’ the system
Like a true modern day Robin Hood.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I never did quite perfect the rebel yell, but I could slide across the hood of Uncle Lenny's car and jump feet first through the driver’s side window with the best of them.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But all this begs the question: what in God's name was a little Black boy from Brooklyn doing in the 1980s hopping in and out of car windows while singing a TV show theme song inspired by the Confederacy? Well, let’s find out.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History. We're a production of Learning for Justice, the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we're offering a detailed look at how to teach the history of Jim Crow, starting with Reconstruction. In each episode we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material, and offering practical classroom exercises.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The Lost Cause of the Confederacy is a revisionist pseudo- history that painted enslaved people as happy, the South as fighting for states’ rights, and Confederate leaders as noble heroes. And it was effective. If you've ever heard or thought those things, it's because of this racist fairytale that began being told almost immediately after the Civil War ended.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In this episode, historian Karen Cox explains how the Lost Cause worked its way into our schools, our laws and our culture. She explains to my co-host Bethany Jay how a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy perpetuated this myth by erecting monuments and spreading propaganda after Reconstruction. She also illustrates how those monuments were controversial from the moment they were installed. I’m glad you could join us.
Bethany Jay: Karen, thanks so much for being here today to talk with us about Confederate monuments, which is so much a part of our public conversation, but very little of that conversation is really based in the kind of depth and understanding that you have of this issue. And so we're really happy to get you here to sort of explain some things, and perhaps right some misconceptions and make some links for us. So thank you again for being here.
Karen Cox: I'm very happy to be with you and help you do that.
Bethany Jay: So these monuments, there's a lot of conflicting information about when and where they came from. Can you tell us the story of where the vast majority of Confederate monuments came from?
Karen Cox: Monuments have been built in every single decade since the end of the Civil War, but the peak period of building was between the 1890s and World War I. And that aligns with the growth of this women's group, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which was the group primarily responsible for most of those monuments. Women have always been the people behind Confederate monuments. Initially after the end of the Civil War, it was Ladies Memorial Associations, which were community-based groups. Those very early monuments went into cemeteries where the Confederate dead were buried. And so those were the earliest monuments. Then a second generation of women gets involved, which is the United Daughters of the Confederacy which was formed in 1894. At that point in time, you begin to see monuments become much more publicly visible. They're very specifically being placed in the American South, where most of them are, they are on courthouse grounds.
Karen Cox: And the reason behind this is that the United Daughters of the Confederacy, I'll say UDC or the Daughters when I talk about them, is they're interested in how Confederate memory will be preserved. Their goal at this stage in the early 20th century is vindication, to vindicate the Confederacy. And so in the 20th century, when those monuments are going up, it is not really about the past, but about the future. They want future generations of white Southerners to value what the Confederacy stood for, so that was definitely part of their thinking in putting these monuments in such public spaces.
Karen Cox: They also were sending a message to people of color in their communities, African Americans, that you're second-class citizens. This is in the center of most southern towns, the courthouse is where people are supposed to do their business with their local government, and here's a Confederate monument that stands outside of that building, signaling that this is a place that's operated by white men: the attorneys, the judges, the sheriffs, and white men are in charge of what happens inside this building, but obviously also outside.
Bethany Jay: And of course, courthouses have so much significance, not only as the center of power in communities, but also in the South as a site where many lynchings either originated or actually happened. Can you speak to that connection between lynching and the monuments in courthouses?
Karen Cox: So it's not a surprise that a lynching would occur on the grounds of a courthouse. It's already signaled to the community with this monument that it is a government of white supremacy. So I had a story that can illustrate this. In Morganton, North Carolina, they had a Confederate monument. There was a manhunt for an African-American man who had allegedly attacked a young white girl from one of the local mills. And so there was a posse of people, you know, that were deputized, and they chased this man throughout the mountain area around Morganton. And when they found him, they killed him, and they laid this dead body at the base of the Confederate monument.
Karen Cox: You couldn't be more clear about white supremacy in your community than to put a lynched body on the monument itself. And a crowd of 5,000 people showed up to ogle at this body, this dead body. It became the spectacle for a few hours until the sheriff finally removed the body from the site. It illustrates the system of white supremacy and the ways in which it affects people's behavior. You know, that they would want to come out and watch this and reaffirm what these men had done.
Bethany Jay: You know, we use the term and we hear the term, "Lost Cause." Can you give us a synopsis of how we might think about the Lost Cause?
Karen Cox: Right. So the Lost Cause is a term that emerged immediately after the Civil War ended. It was given the name by Edward Pollard, a journalist, Richmond journalist, who titled his book The Lost Cause. The Lost Cause is this revisionist narrative of what the war had been about. It's saying, "You know what? It was over states' rights. We didn't fight this war over slavery." Even though that's what they did. This was the cause of the Confederate government, and we know that it is because Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens was really clear about what the Confederacy was about. And he wrote this cornerstone speech in 1861 only a few weeks before the Civil War erupted. Not only is the Confederacy, as he would say, founded on the notion that quote, "The Negro is not equal to the white man," but, he said, and he wrote quote, "Slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition," end quote. So that's part of the narrative of the Lost Cause, or what we call the myths of the Lost Cause. It's also things like well, slavery was somehow a benign institution. White slave owners Christianized these African savages. You know, they would use that kind of language.
Karen Cox: It makes, obviously, heroes out of Confederate leaders like military leaders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. I call them the Teflon heroes of the Confederacy. Like, they could do no wrong. And so yeah, there's all these myths around them that, you know, that Robert E. Lee was a kindly gentleman who didn't really support slavery. Of course we know he was a brutal slave owner. If you can recover from defeat through all these myths and through this narrative, then somehow that horrible defeat doesn't seem so bad. Edward Pollard said—and let me read from his book The Lost Cause. He says that the South did not really have to admit defeat, but rather only what was properly decided. And for him, all that was properly decided was the restoration of the union and a legal end to slavery. And now he's writing this in 1865, but he says it did not decide Negro equality. It did not decide Negro suffrage. It did not decide state rights. And these things which the war did not decide, the Southern people still cling to. So even if you get Reconstruction amendments, you know, we get the 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment that gives Black men the right to vote, he's saying that the Southern people still cling to these ideas. He's saying, you know, it becomes about white supremacy immediately after the war. We're going to have to sustain this some other way.
Bethany Jay: I'm thinking about two key moments in this early timeline of Confederate monuments: the 1875 laying of the Augusta cornerstone, and the 1890 unveiling of the Robert E. Lee monument, which both seem to sort of advance that Lost Cause narrative nationally and add layers to it.
Karen Cox: Yeah, so in the case of Richmond and the Robert E. Lee monument, thousands and thousands of people show up for that, and John Mitchell Jr., who's editor of the Black newspaper, the Richmond Planet, he's like, Oh, this is the lost cause on steroids. What he also cautioned and was alerting people to is that what the Lost Cause, this celebration is signaling to African Americans is that they're beginning to dial back the progress of Reconstruction.
Karen Cox: And it's true in that year, 1890, Mississippi becomes the first state to come up with a plan, they call it the Mississippi Plan, that disenfranchises Black men. Basically, what it involved is a poll tax, to basically pay to vote. And then they had something called "The understanding clause." And they would read a section of the state constitution, and they would have to explain what it meant. So it basically disenfranchises poor people and illiterate people from voting. And then one state after another does that. And so John Mitchell saw this coming.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Since we recorded this interview, the 12-ton statue of Robert E. Lee was removed from its pedestal on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia.
Karen Cox: The Augusta case is interesting because at this point Reconstruction has ended in Georgia, and almost immediately there's this effort to move the monuments outside of cemeteries into the public square or along a public boulevard, not necessarily the courthouse yet, but on a boulevard. And they're saying at these unveilings, they're making these statements, "Oh, now we're really putting all this aside, but we were right! We were right!" [laughs]
Bethany Jay: "We were right, but let's move past this sort of bitterness, whatever it might be of the war." The Northern press picks up on just that: let's move beyond this bitterness, and we start to see this reconciliation of the white North and South.
Karen Cox: That's true. I mean, this is the thing: if the white North wasn't also complicit in the Lost Cause, it may have been just relegated to the South, but the North are saying, "Okay, we're going to just sort of turn a blind eye to this." As you said, when the story of Augusta monument speech was printed in a couple of Northern newspapers, they only print the good stuff about reconciliation. They don't print this stuff where he's saying, "We were still right." And so once Reconstruction has ended, more and more white Northerners are really being complicit in this movement of the Lost Cause. One of the ways in which that happens is that, beginning in the 1880s, you begin to see reunions of veterans.
Bethany Jay: Yeah.
Karen Cox: White Northern veterans are really the first tourists in the postwar South. They want to visit the battlefields where they lost many of their comrades. A group of men from a New Jersey regiment came to Richmond in 1881, and they were greeted by Confederate veterans at the docks. They were feted and they all went out together onto these battlefields and took back souvenirs, like bullets out of a tree or whatever. Things like that.
Bethany Jay: Yeah, and those moments of reconciliation or those battlefield visits, and I'm thinking of, you know, the anniversaries of Gettysburg and all of these different moments that really only happen between the white veterans of the North and South as well, right? The African Americans who fought on the Union side for the most part are excluded from all of those memorial events.
Karen Cox: Or segregated in some way from them. Yes. So they're participating on some level in the myth-making. And one of the major ones is at Arlington National Cemetery, this Confederate monument in Arlington. It was being given by the United Daughters of the Confederacy as a quote unquote "gift to the nation." Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States, was there on the speaker's platform at the unveiling. And those in attendance were veterans from both sides, from the North and the South, white women's organizations from the North and the South. And the monument itself, if interpreted as an art piece—which it is—is really a story of the Lost Cause, the Confederate interpretation of the Civil War. And so when you have white Northerners giving their stamp of approval for that interpretation, you see where this is going. That reconciliation between the white North and white South frees up the South to pursue its agenda around African Americans, dialing back the progress made by Reconstruction, and reinterpreting the whole issue of the Civil War, that it had been over slavery, and that one of the most important outcomes was emancipation. The most important outcome was emancipation. And so the white South couldn't do that if there was pushback from white Northerners. But there wasn't that kind of pushback.
Karen Cox: And then, of course, in popular culture, the North is very, very much complicit in the Lost Cause. First of all, you could look through the pages of the Confederate Veteran magazine and see advertisements for statues, for all kinds of souvenirs, for pro-Southern books about the South, for Confederate uniforms to wear at reunions, all kinds of things. And all of these are being manufactured in the North.
Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.
Karen Cox: And so they see this, I'm sure on one level, as a financial boon for them.
Bethany Jay: A windfall.
Karen Cox: Yeah, because the North has the industrial infrastructure that the South does not have, and so they manufacture these things for Southerners. Then you have sheet music. During the heyday of Tin Pan Alley, you had music composers and lyricists who would write songs about the South that were this romanticized vision of the old South. Dixie songs is what they were called. During World War I, for example, I think World War I really kind of marks this time in which white Northerners and white Southerners are part of the American army together again. Like, in a way even more so than the Spanish-American War. And there are songs that come out of Tin Pan Alley about the South that basically says here are these Southern laddies just like their dear old daddies, who are fighting men like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. And these are songs that are being written by Jewish immigrants who'd never been to the South. These were very popular songs. Irving Berlin wrote a Dixie song. The song "Swanee" is in that genre.
Karen Cox: Then you see early radio programs that romanticize the South that are being produced in New York. Hollywood movies, things like Birth of a Nation in 1915, all the way up to Gone With the Wind in 1939. And the most popular actress in the '30s was Shirley Temple, who appeared in films called The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel. And so popular culture whitewashes the history of the Civil War and becomes basically the Lost Cause on film.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries. We prepare detailed show notes for each episode of this podcast so that you can use what you learn here in the classroom. You'll find relevant resources—as well as a full transcript, complete with links to materials mentioned by our guests. You can find them at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Let's return now to Bethany Jay's conversation with Karen Cox.
Karen Cox: There's this erroneous notion out there that people didn't begin to protest Confederate monuments until the Black Lives Matter movement. And that's just not true. There have been critiques and protests around these symbols ever since they went up in the 19th century. You know, we hear from national leaders like Frederick Douglass, who called them "Monuments of folly" as early as the 1870s. We hear from W.E.B. Du Bois, you know, the leading Black intellectual of the 20th century, who says a better inscription on these monuments would be, "In memory of the men who fought to perpetuate human slavery." Something along that line.
Karen Cox: But the people who really were most affected were Black Southerners. And so when you get in the era of Jim Crow, people assume that African Americans must not have a problem with these monuments because they're not protesting them then, you know? But the reality is, and as someone who spoke like in 2013 over in Memphis, he said, "If I had tried to protest this monument when it was unveiled in 1905, I could have been lynched."
Bethany Jay: Yep.
Karen Cox: And that's the issue. It's like, it's not that they were okay with these monuments, and they very likely critiqued them in safe spaces: in their churches, in the Masonic Hall, you know, in their private homes. We do have examples of how people felt in the pages of the Chicago Defender, which was the leading national Black newspaper, and which Black Southerners purchased and circulated amongst themselves. And you see repeated critiques of Confederate symbols, but also specifically about Confederate monuments. And this is through letters to the editor of the Chicago Defender coming from Black Southerners who say that these monuments are honoring traitors, traitors to the nation. These are men who took up arms against the United States. Why are they being honored? Why does the United States allow the white South to honor these traitors?
Bethany Jay: A quote from your book, No Common Ground, where it's one of the readers from the Chicago Defender, it so clearly states also the power that Black citizens saw in these monuments. You say, "John Upsher, a reader from Omaha, Nebraska, was troubled by what monuments taught young white Southerners." Quote, "Every time children of the men—Confederate veterans—look at the monuments, it gives them a greater desire to carry out the wishes of their forefathers. If those monuments weren't standing, the white South wouldn't be so encouraged to practice hate and discrimination against our people. They stand as emblems of hate and envy and shouldn't have been permitted to be erected."
Bethany Jay: And I just think that so perfectly encapsulates how Black Southerners saw them as actively encouraging the segregationist South, and also then why they become such symbolic sites for protests during the civil rights movement.
Karen Cox: You know, when you get to the civil rights era, then you begin to see some engagement with Confederate monuments. Following the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Meredith March that was being led between Memphis, Tennessee and Jackson, Mississippi, and in each community, where do you register to vote? At the courthouse, where the Confederate monument sits, or it's in the main thoroughfare somewhere, but that's usually the center of town. And as they go through each town, that's generally where these marchers end up, and they reclaim the space that these Confederate monuments have held for over 100 years on behalf of voting rights, of their own civil rights. And so you see that happening. And because of the Voting Rights Act, these communities are finally able to elect people of color to their local government. You begin to see those representatives speak out about Confederate symbols in their community, whether it's the battle flag on the courthouse or the monument.
Bethany Jay: You know, you brought up the lynching where the body was placed at the foot of the monument in North Carolina, and I'm thinking of a parallel with the death of Sammy Younge during the civil rights movement and the use of the monument there by civil rights activists. Can you speak to that?
Karen Cox: Yeah, so 1966, Sammy Younge, who was a 21-year-old African-American man, he was a student at Tuskegee University and a member of SNCC—Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He had gone to use the bathroom at a gas station. And the gas station owner directed him to the quote-unquote "Colored" restroom, but Sammy Younge was, you know, "Have you not heard of the Civil Rights Act?" Meaning you can't do that anymore, you know? An argument ensued and he was shot and killed. And so this white man who murdered Sammy Younge was acquitted. And there's this Confederate monument in the center of this park in the middle of downtown Tuskegee. This park had been designated for whites only when it was first created. That evening after the trial was over, his fellow students at Tuskegee went down as a group and they began to deface the monument. They got paint, black paint, and slapped paint on there. They put Sam Younge's name on this Confederate monument, and they also painted the words "Black Power" on this monument. One young woman, we don't know her name, but she yells, "Let's get all the monuments!" And she meant across the state of Alabama. And it's a powerful statement because it's this recognition of someone who just had grown up in this state and knows what these monuments represent to the Black community, that we want to take them all down.
Karen Cox: This is the thing that I don't think people understand sometimes: you know, a group of people do not have to be protesting all the time to know what it means to their community.
Bethany Jay: Yeah. Yeah, as I'm listening to you speak, I was thinking well, these monuments really become a sort of proxy to kind of attack the whole white supremacist kind of ideology. But that's really not right, because the monuments really aren't a proxy. You know, they're part and parcel. You know, they're active in creating that white supremacist ideology and maintaining it. And we see the way that the Daughters of the Confederacy and their attempts to rewrite the history of the Civil War and rewrite the history of the Old South, how that has really borne fruit in the 1950s and '60s as these civil rights protests ramp up in places like Alabama.
Karen Cox: Exactly. I mean, monuments are one tool in the white supremacist toolbox. This one tool that is used to alert white children to this narrative of the Lost Cause that they're also learning in their textbooks, in their public schools, that they're also learning through a group called the Children of the Confederacy, which is the UDC's auxiliary. So that by the time they come of age in the '50s and '60s, they've learned those lessons about state's rights and about federal intrusion into their lives as white Southerners, and they feel I need to defend against that.
Bethany Jay: Yeah. And I'm sure that the teachers who are listening to us will be interested to know just how actively the Daughters of the Confederacy were working to impact what was in textbooks, or creating lesson plans around monuments, up until, I believe, the 1950s that the Daughters of the Confederacy were still running field trips to Confederate monuments, if I have that correct.
Karen Cox: They're definitely out there in the 1950s, taking children to the monuments and commemorating Confederate Memorial Day, which is a day in which the white South basically reasserts its commitment to the values of the Confederacy. And in a post-slavery world, that's white supremacy. They sponsor essay contests in the schools, they involve children in the rituals of Confederate Memorial Day. The UDC was so good and its influence was so strong over the textbooks that that narrative of the Lost Cause is still in textbooks in the 1970s. It just perpetuates itself. You know, I've interviewed women who were members of the UDC for writing my book on the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and they would talk about their family who owned slaves. They had learned this narrative: "But my family, we were good to our slaves."
Bethany Jay: Yeah.
Karen Cox: And to say the word "we" as though it's still current is kind of an interesting way for them to have thought about it, but that's because they had learned those lessons.
Bethany Jay: And you still see that in a lot of historic house museums today where, when they talk about the number of enslaved people at the plantation, they will often say, "Oh, and of the 87 people who—enslaved people who were here, 75 of them stayed on after the Civil War," as though that's a testament to the benevolence of the enslavers and not anything else that might have been impacting their choices at the time.
Karen Cox: Yeah. And there's no thought given to, well, you know, where were they going to go? You know, emancipation came, and then what? It's such an oversimplified interpretation of why people may have stayed on. There's so many reasons why they would have stayed on. Many of them economic. Or their families were there. We have people obviously in 2021, and politicians in 2021, who are repeating the lines, this Lost Cause narrative. "The Civil War was not about slavery, it was about states' rights. Robert E. Lee was a good guy." You know, those kinds of things that you've heard.
Bethany Jay: Yeah, and that Lost Cause narrative in so many ways is still a big part of our national conversations, and it's useful to critically examine its origins and how it's been perpetuated in multiple fronts around the nation. If we're thinking about the continued power of the Lost Cause, there's a surge of monument building that comes after the year 2000, so there's 21st century Confederate monument building. Can you speak about how these more recent monuments differ from those of the early 20th century?
Karen Cox: Yeah, so approximately 35 new monuments built since 2000. I mean, the data that the SPLC has is being modified as they learn new things, but approximately that many. And in the 21st century, there's no need to go back to the courthouse because the UDC covered them back in the early 20th century. But in the 21st century, they might be monuments on private property where they can't be touched. Or they're at state battlefields, or something along those lines. Whereas women were the leaders of the Lost Cause in the early 20th century, men have become the leaders of that movement in the 21st century. Members of the neo-Confederate organizations, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, are more likely to be involved in a way that they really weren't in the early 20th century.
Bethany Jay: The Sons of Confederate Veterans, there's overlap between them and more blatantly white supremacist, white nationalist organizations. Is that fair to say?
Karen Cox: Yeah, there's probably some overlap between, say, the League of the South, formed in 1994, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It's kind of interesting to me is, like, in the 1990s, the Sons of Confederate veterans members would say, "You know, the only reason I have to defend my heritage is because of these characters in the Ku Klux Klan." But when the League of the South is formed in 1994, it pushes the Sons of Confederate Veterans further right, and pushes them around supporting, you know, the Confederate battle flag, issues of white supremacy and white heritage. Like, essentially, the League of the South points at the Sons of Confederate Veterans and says, "You know, you're not doing enough to defend white heritage, white Southern heritage." And so I think that makes the Sons of Confederate Veterans a little more focused on defending this. And then I do believe there’s some probably cross-membership, you know, in the Sons and the League. But now it's just splintered. As you know, there's so many other kinds of organizations, white nationalist groups, militia groups that employ Confederate symbols, specifically, the Confederate battle flag. And so what we saw in Charlottesville in 2017 under the ruse that we're showing up to defend the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, what you saw was a group of people who have no real ties to a Southern past.
Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.
Karen Cox: They have ties to white supremacy and white nationalism, and even they know that the monument to Robert E. Lee represents white supremacy. They didn't just pick anything to rally around, you know? That was very specific. You see it in the Unite the Right rally, it's some Sons of Confederate Veterans, some Ku Klux Klan members. But then a lot of people who, A) aren't even from the South; and B) have no Confederate heritage to defend.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Karen Cox: And then they employ the Confederate battle flag as part of the symbols that you see there, along with the Nazi flag, et cetera. So these things have begun to kind of blend together in some ways. But in the South, it's still the Sons of Confederate Veterans primarily, or now the Proud Boys. But it's always—it's generally white men. White men who are in this, you know, defensive position because they feel that things like, you know, women's rights and gay rights and affirmative action, all these kinds of things have left them behind. And so they see in these monuments, in some ways, they see themselves being removed.
Bethany Jay: Right. In the same way that they were used after the Civil War to sort of reaffirm white men's position against the tide of Reconstruction or emancipation. Here we see them used to reaffirm white men's position against different, what they might call threats.
Karen Cox: Yes. And there's this belief that somehow they've been replaced, but I mean, if you look across our country even after the Civil War, no, it's like white men are still in charge of government, of corporations and things like that. And so white women did a lot of the hard work of that, of trying to build up men's reputations. But white men did that themselves through the kind of legislation that was passed that reversed the gains of Reconstruction and legalizing segregation. And they show that over and over, by, you know, during the civil rights movement, this is when state flags get changed, and you put a Confederate battle flag on top of the capitol in South Carolina. They already had the Confederate monument on the grounds, here's a flag at the top of the capitol to reaffirm that, yes, white men are in charge.
Bethany Jay: Yeah. Yeah. An exclamation point. One of the things that is so interesting about talking about monuments is the way that they play into so many conversations. And as we've demonstrated just talking today, you know, conversations about lynching, conversations about the civil rights movement, but also conversations about voting rights. Can you speak to the connections between the sort of modern movement to remove statues and voting rights?
Karen Cox: What people need to understand, I think, is that Confederate monuments are generally local objects. The people who raised money for them, they're in the community, they're local objects. As a community has evolved in its thinking and decides, "Well, that doesn't really represent our community in the 21st century," they've been prohibited because of these monument laws. And so it's all tied to voting rights because there's the gerrymandering of states that assures that you only get a very conservative Republican state legislature. And so in these state legislatures that are elected because they've disenfranchised people, they pass monument laws that removes local control and prevents local communities who’ve maybe have decided amongst themselves that, yeah, we would like to remove the monument in our community. We find it divisive. Let the communities decide.
Karen Cox: You know, Virginia is an excellent example of this. And so there had been a law on the books for years and years. When the Virginia state legislature, there was a changing of the guard and there was now a Democratic majority, that law got changed. And so the law, the monument law now returned local control. The reason why Virginia's had the most monument removals is because the law changed and restored local control. And then in South Carolina and also in Tennessee, there are two-thirds supermajorities required to change the law. [laughs] These places are so gerrymandered, you can't elect officials so those laws are never going to change.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Karen Cox: And so there is no real sense that people have power to make change through legal means. And so it's led to frustration. It's led to people vandalizing monuments. So the laws that are intended to protect monuments actually lead to their being vandalized because they've taken away local control and the ability for people to do anything about the law in their state, because they can't elect officials, because their voting rights have been undermined.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Learning for Justice has a special opportunity just for educators. After listening to this episode, you can earn a certificate for one hour of professional development. All you have to do is go to LearningForJustice.org/PodcastPD—PD for professional development. That's PodcastPD, all one word. Then enter the unique code word for this episode: "mythology"—all lowercase. You'll also find a link in the show notes. It's a great way to get even more out of Teaching Hard History.
Bethany Jay: In the wake of the civil rights movement, and as we get into the '70s and '80s, monuments become a focus of Black political leadership. Can you talk a little bit about Harvey Gantt and his career in North Carolina?
Karen Cox: Harvey Gantt was the mayor of Charlotte in the mid-'80s. He served two terms. People probably would best remember him from this US Senate campaign against Jesse Helms in 1990. But he got his political start on the Charlotte city council, and he was the only Black member of the city council. And there was a group in Charlotte that called themselves the Confederate Memorial Society. They raised money to put a Confederate marker or monument on the grounds of City Hall in 1977—112 years after the Civil War. And supposedly the guy who was leading the group had sought permission from city council. Really, he had some backdoor conversations with a couple of the white members of the city council, but when it came up for a vote, Harvey Gantt had not heard about it. And he explained why it was inappropriate to be putting a Confederate monument on the grounds of city hall in 1977, that it didn't represent ideas of a new South city that Charlotte was trying to become, and it certainly didn't represent his constituents and the Black community of Charlotte. And so there was a lot of debate over a couple weeks. Of course, the monument still went on the grounds because he was the only nay vote. But he was really very powerful and very eloquent, and he had a real deep understanding of history and of monuments, and how the kind of messages that this kind of Confederate memory and Lost Cause had and the damage it had done to Black communities, you know, throughout history. His knowledge of that was built on generations who came before him who felt the same way.
Bethany Jay: These conversations that have been going on in the Black community for decades.
Karen Cox: Yes. And so finally, you have someone with the voice of leadership, a political voice who can say these things out loud. And he just sort of cut down that Lost Cause rhetoric left and right at these meetings of the city council.
Bethany Jay: Yeah. If Harvey Gantt and his work on the Charlotte city council kind of represents the possibilities of local Black leadership, then Nathan Bedford Forrest monument in Memphis really seems like a good example of the complications that have arisen, as you say, from removing that local control.
Karen Cox: Sure. Essentially, you know, the city of Memphis, which now had a majority Black city council, the first thing that happened was they changed the name of the park. So it's no longer Forrest Park. And then they wanted to go about removing the monument. And Tennessee state law said, "Well, you have to go before some state historical commission," which is basically a bunch of political appointees. You know, no public government like the city government of Memphis can make these changes without approval. And so they figured out a way around that, and sold the land to a private entity, a non-profit, that promptly removed the monument. It was such a boss move, I say, that they circumvented the state law. Well then of course, the state, these state legislators were, like, so furious with the city of Memphis that they changed the law. They doubled down on these Confederate monuments, and then they said, you know, that any, like, citizen could, like, rat them out if anybody was attempting to remove a monument. So it's become part of the culture wars of the GOP. It's a wedge issue that they can get people all stirred up about without really having a clear understanding of that longer history and the facts around why they were put there and the purposes that they've served over many generations.
Bethany Jay: And one of the things that happened around the Memphis protests is the slogan "Confederate Lives Matter" being used by those defending the monument, which is just a fascinating adaptation of a racial justice slogan, of course, "Black Lives Matter."
Karen Cox: Yeah, this has been a strategy, I think, over many generations. In the '70s when Harvey Gantt was speaking out against this new Confederate monument, the guy who was responsible for the monument said, "Oh, you can't elect Harvey Gantt to be mayor, because he doesn't really believe in equality." Okay? And then, you know, with multiculturalism, it was like, we use the words like "African American," and then they started calling themselves "Confederate Americans." All of these are like justice movements. They're movements to be more inclusive, then they co-opt the language to return the attention to themselves. You know, forget Black lives. Let's turn it back onto white lives and talk about Confederate lives. Or, you know, Blue Lives Matter, White Lives Matter. We've heard them all.
Bethany Jay: All Lives Matter. Yeah.
Karen Cox: It's a way of undermining these movements for justice, for racial justice.
Bethany Jay: I think it was either in voting against For the People Act or voting for one of the laws to ban divisive history or critical race theory in the classroom, and you know, the argument was, "I am for equality, and that's why I'm voting to ban critical race theory." Or, "I'm for equality, and that's why I'm voting against the For the People Act."
Karen Cox: Yeah. And rather than actually thinking about it and discussing real equality, we're just going to pretend as though somehow these poor put-upon white people don't have any rights, and we're being made to feel bad about our whiteness. And that's absolutely not what any of it's about. I mean, I don't teach critical race theory, I teach history. And if you study history, then you have to understand the significance of race and slavery and segregation, and all of these things in our country that are fundamental to the history of our nation.
Bethany Jay: Do you have a good answer for those who say "By removing those monuments, you're removing history?"
Karen Cox: Well, my answer that I've developed… [laughs]
Bethany Jay: [laughs] I thought you might have some.
Karen Cox: Is that, first of all, no monument ever taught a history lesson. People do that. Books provide that history. And if you were to remove a monument, that history has not been erased. We will always know the history of Confederate monuments. Houses get torn down all the time that supposedly have some sort of historical importance, but we don't lose the history of those buildings, for example. And likewise, we wouldn't lose the history of these monuments. We know the history of these monuments. I wrote a book about them. That history is available to everyone through photographs, through postcards, through speeches, through history books. And also, that these monuments don't really speak to the Confederate history, but are really about Jim Crow history.
Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.
Karen Cox: You know, we've removed "Colored" entrance signs or "Whites only" signs that are evidence of Jim Crow, and we didn't lose that history because those things are gone. And no one would want to bring those back—well, maybe some people—but they have been removed, but that history is still available to us. And it's very possible that some communities may decide at some point in the future to exhibit them. Removal does not mean that they've been destroyed. Many of these are in storage, the ones that have been removed are in storage until, perhaps, they can find a better place to exhibit them. Maybe it's the battlefield, where it could be properly interpreted by the National Park Service or a state park system. So there's a variety of ways in which this could all play out, but by no means is history being erased if a monument is removed.
Bethany Jay: Of course, our listeners are largely teachers. And as teachers, we're always looking for those great examples that we can bring into the classroom. So do you have any examples of the connections between the monuments and the sort of themes that we're talking about: the Lost Cause and white supremacy, that you think would be really great in the classroom?
Karen Cox: My goal in the book is to make sure it's very clear that this isn't just an interpretation I'm providing, but I'm doing it using the actual documents and letting these people speak for themselves. There are lots of documents that are very clear, that illustrate that monuments, Confederate memorialization, et cetera, is about preserving white supremacy. One of the things that I think that connects white supremacy with Confederate monuments is the Ku Klux Klan. Confederate veterans openly used the term "Anglo-Saxon supremacy." This wasn't something that future generations sort of went back and said, "Oh, this is about white supremacy." No, they, actually—veterans openly used the term "Anglo-Saxon supremacy." And early Confederate organizations really valued the Ku Klux Klan of Reconstruction. And the UDC was very much in favor of honoring the original Klan of Reconstruction. And this woman named Laura Martin Rose, she publishes under her husband's name, Mrs. S.E.F. Rose, a UDC member from Mississippi, she published a little booklet on the Ku Klux Klan that was endorsed by the UDC and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and it was a publication that was placed in school libraries.
Bethany Jay: Goodness.
Karen Cox: And she said that she hoped it would inspire children, young white children, quote, "With respect and admiration for the Confederate soldiers," who she said were quote, "The real Ku Klux." And she goes on to talk about white supremacy. "These sturdy white men of the South maintained white supremacy and secured Caucasian civilization. Their efforts helped to maintain the supremacy of the white race." So this was a little pamphlet that she wrote, published in 1914, that was intended to teach young children. And that document is actually available on the Internet Archive.
Bethany Jay: Of course, we'll put links to all of these resources in the show notes for this episode. Well, it's like you said, about secession, right? We don't need to guess the reasons why the South seceded. They told us. And we don't need to guess the purpose of the Daughters of the Confederacy or the Ku Klux Klan. They're telling us.
Karen Cox: They absolutely tell us. And one of the things I think it's important to understand is the ways in which, again, the values of white supremacy and the Confederacy get reaffirmed on Confederate Memorial Day. And so one of these that really stood out for me was on Memorial Day in Raleigh, North Carolina, on May 10, 1933. So much later than, you know, that heyday of monument building, but it shows you the ways in which Confederate Memorial Day, which usually occurs alongside or adjacent to a Confederate monument, you're still hearing speeches that speak to that. And so a Supreme Court justice named Heriot Clarkson, he was on the North Carolina Supreme Court, gave a speech in which he talked about how awful Reconstruction was, which a lot of them would say. And he says, you know, Reconstruction was when quote, "Millions of Negro slaves were turned loose on the prostrate white race, these political vultures." And he's talking about carpetbaggers, you know, Northerners who were there during Reconstruction. "These political vultures with the illiterate Negro ruled the South." And that he even asserts that Confederate soldiers are disenfranchised in his speech. And then he also says, essentially following what I was saying earlier about the Mississippi Plan, you know, North Carolina followed suit with its own change to a constitutional amendment in the General Assembly in 1899, that North Carolinians, as he said it, "Restored racial order in their government founded on white supremacy through white men." So he's saying that they basically reclaimed the South for white supremacy.
Bethany Jay: Goodness. Again, right? There's just no need for interpretation there. It's right there.
Karen Cox: Yes, he says it. He says it plain and simple. And that's another, I think one of the things that you can find, that teachers can find on Archive.org, which is the Internet Archive, are Memorial Day speeches just like this one. That's where this one exists along with Miss Rose's book on the Ku Klux Klan.
Bethany Jay: There's so much that we ask of teachers all the time, but asking them to have some of these really difficult conversations about race, about white supremacy, about issues that may be very much present in their communities is particularly hard. Can you just speak to why teachers should take this particular topic on, and why it's important to talk about in the classroom?
Karen Cox: I think this is a topic that speaks to the diversity of your students and their experiences, and what it may feel like for a young white student, is going to be different from how it may feel for a person of color or maybe a new immigrant in the community that may be in your classroom. I think it's also important that we are educating this generation of students to be thoughtful, well-informed citizens so that, hopefully, they can avoid the pitfalls of false narratives that get perpetuated in politics and in popular culture and the like. I think if you are to teach this and it's grounded in the source material, and this is the way I try to approach it when I'm speaking, is that I don't have to interpret this for you. Allow me to share with you the primary sources, the original documents, in which these individuals state very clearly what this means to them and what it's about.
Karen Cox: It is a heavy topic, a dark topic, a divisive topic. As heavy as it is, it's a responsibility that I take seriously, that I want to share with as many people as possible. As a historian, obviously, I have concerns that there are people who have not studied any history at all, but have uninformed opinions that get us away from historical truth. I want us all to land on the historical truth and the facts that are there for us through these documents, through what people said themselves.
Karen Cox: The Confederate monuments that exist out there on the landscape have presented only one narrative for well over a hundred years. There are lessons to be learned from studying Confederate monuments, not just the one narrative that these Confederate heritage organizations have perpetuated for so many generations through the Lost Cause.
Bethany Jay: And if people want to learn the history of the monuments, they can read your book No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice. I'm so happy that you were here with us, Dr. Cox. Thank you so much for taking time to speak with us today. I know that this conversation will be incredibly helpful as teachers think about confronting this issue in their classrooms. Maybe some of which that are in communities where this debate is ongoing today. So thanks again for being with us. I really had a great time talking with you.
Karen Cox: Well, thank you, and thanks for having this conversation, because I think it's one we should have and do it with civility.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Karen L. Cox is a Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the author of several books, including No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice and Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture. And you can see Dr. Cox in the recent POV documentary: The Neutral Ground, about the fight over monuments in New Orleans.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and more. You can find award-winning films and classroom-ready texts at LearningForJustice.org.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the Jim Crow Era and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. In our fourth season, we put Jim Crow under the spotlight, examining its history and lasting impact.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Dr. Cox for sharing her insight with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. "Music Reconstructed:" is produced by Barrett Golding. And Cory Collins provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you like what you’ve heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University—and your host for Teaching Hard History.
- Karen Cox, History, University of North Carolina: Charlotte
- Karen Cox, Op-eds
- Southern Poverty Law Center, Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy
- United Daughters of the Confederacy, History of the UDC
- Encyclopedia Virginia, Ladies’ Memorial Associations
- Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina (UNC), Burke County Confederate Monument, Morganton
- The Reconstruction Era: Edward Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates
- American Battlefield Trust: Alexander Stephens, Cornerstone Speech
- The Atlantic, The Myth of the Kindly General Lee
- U.S. Senate, Landmark Legislation: Thirteenth, Fourteenth, & Fifteenth Amendments
- The New York Times, Memorial Day.; Laying of The Corner-Stone of the Confederate Monument at Augusta, Ga.
- National Geographic, The origin story of Monument Avenue, America’s most controversial street
- The National Endowment for the Humanities, The “Fighting Editor” of the Richmond Planet
- The Washington Post, Mississippi kept Blacks from voting with a Jim Crow state constitution in 1890
- Arlington National Cemetery, Confederate Memorial
- The Library of Virginia, Confederate Veteran Magazine
- John Bush Jones, Reinventing Dixie: Tin Pan Alley's Songs and the Creation of the Mythic South
- The Mississippi Quarterly, Tin Pan Alley and Dixie: The South in Popular Song
- Al Jolson, “Swanee” from Rhapsody in Blue (1945 film)
- Library of Congress, New National Era (Washington, D.C.), December 1, 1870 (Frederick Douglass )
- Library of Congress: Teaching, The Frederick Douglass Digital Newspaper Collection from the Library of Congress
- W. E. B. Du Bois Center, About Du Bois
- The New York Times, The Chicago Defender, Legendary Black Newspaper, Prints Last Copy
- Karen Cox, No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice
- US Department of Justice, History Of Federal Voting Rights Laws
- Zinn Education Project, Jan. 3, 1966: Sammy Younge Jr. Murdered
- C-SPAN Classroom, Civil Rights - 1966 James Meredith March Against Fear
- Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, The Story of SNCC
- Salon, 7 things the United Daughters of the Confederacy might not want you to know about them
- Southern Poverty Law Center, Sons of Confederate Veterans in its own Civil War
- Southern Poverty Law Center, League of the South
- The Washington Post, Charlottesville timeline - How white supremacist protests turned deadly over 24 hours
- Time, Confederate Flag in South Carolina: The History of How It Got There
- American Bar Association, Confederate-monument removals slowed by knot of legal issues
- The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, About Harvey B. Gantt
- Fast Company, How Memphis transformed its parks named for Confederate generals
- Smithsonian Magazine, The Many Myths of the Term 'Anglo-Saxon'
- Laura Martin Rose, Ku Klux Klan: Or Invisible Empire
- AL.com, Confederate Memorial Day still recognized in Alabama and across the South
- Facing South, The group behind Confederate monuments also built a memorial to the Klan
- POV: American Documentary, The Neutral Ground