By D’Weston Haywood, PhD., Columnist
Ideologies often need symbols to thrive and the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have illustrated this (once again). Protests around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the resulting murder of Heather Heyer by James Alex Fields, Jr., and President Trump’s botched response to it and tacit endorsement of neo-Nazism have helped expose a racism and white supremacy that Black people have long argued still existed in the Post-Civil Rights and (the so-called) Post-Racial eras. White supremacists are typically portrayed as ignorant and uneducated people but their reemergence into public view, waging a violent public fight over history, public memory, and memorials suggests something different. White supremacists understand well the power of history, particularly the political power of the past to promote vindicationist propaganda.
Most confederate statues were erected in the 1920s. Many more followed in ensuing decades, especially the 1960s. Interestingly enough, statues went up during waves of racial violence, surges in Black activism, and expansions in Black civil rights. The towering presence of confederate statues over public spaces, and in some cases on state grounds, have enabled the memorialized to gaze down and out on contemporary history, inserting and asserting the ideologies and politics of a bygone era in which whites absolutely dominated and racial, gender, and religious minorities were absolutely subordinate to a white power structure that not only went unquestioned but was also supported by state and federal law. This is the historical moment that white supremacists understand—hitting a pause button if you will—exhibiting a particular though selective and romanticized historical consciousness, the material manifestations of which they seek to preserve using one of their most well-known tools—violence.
Dylann Roof’s massacre in Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 exemplified this. Roof chose the historic church precisely because of its importance to the long Black freedom struggle as a site of a planned slave revolt and organizing during the civil rights movement. Roof, a high school drop-out and therefore a seemingly uneducated white supremacist, was aware of this history, even if only in cursory ways. He was methodical in his selection of Mother Emanuel, just as white supremacists are methodical in interpreting history.
Charlottesville is the latest tragedy in a modern white supremacist crusade that has been building publicly since Mother Emanuel. Activist Bree Newsome scaled a flagpole to remove the confederate flag above the South Carolina state grounds in the wake of the Mother Emanuel massacre. Protesters in Durham, North Carolina, forcibly removed a confederate statue in the wake of Charlottesville. Some states and cities are now initiating efforts to remove their confederate monuments.
It is significant that these statues of dead confederates are being removed from their platforms…unprecedented in fact. Yet, it is equally significant that living monuments to the ideas the statues represent remain. Trump has removed Steve Bannon from his platform inside the White House. He was Trump’s chief strategist. Bannon, the Virginia-born hero to the alt-right, has returned to his other platform: Breitbart News.
D’Weston Haywood is assistant professor of History at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His research and teaching centers on histories of Black protest, Black cultural politics, and Black masculinity. He is currently completing a historical monograph, Let Us Make Men: Black Newspapers and a Manly Vision of Racial Advancement.