During the summer of 1993, as I drove down I-59 from Hattiesburg, Miss., to New Orleans to do some historical research for my dissertation, I spotted a bumper sticker with a Confederate battle flag that read “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Jeff Davis!” It was a play on the bumper sticker that emerged following the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, which read “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Bush!” Jefferson Davis, the one and only president of the failed Confederacy, was long dead, but the message was an indication of how much the Lost Cause remained very much alive in the Deep South.
I’d grown up in Greensboro, N.C., in the 1970s, and I don’t recall such attention to Confederate memory there as I found when I moved to Mississippi to attend graduate school. Now, after a lifetime of studying Southern history, this makes more sense to me, because in the 1990s, Lost Cause sympathies were far more entrenched the deeper into the South one traveled. That has changed significantly in the past 25 years, and especially since 2015, as states across the region, including my home state, have passed laws to protect Confederate monuments as part of an alleged dedication to “Southern heritage.”
GOP-dominated state assemblies have passed draconian legislation as part of Republicans’ culture war against Black Lives Matter and racial progress more generally. Much of it is based on propagating myths that the South fought the Civil War to protect states’ rights (it was to preserve the institution of slavery) and that removing a monument is an erasure of history (it isn’t). Even when a cross-section of Southerners petition for removal, they’re prevented from doing so because these state legislatures have usurped local control through so-called heritage protection acts.
As a historian of the American South, I feel a deep responsibility to share the long history of these statues alongside the stories of racial injustice with which they are associated. It’s why I often speak to community groups, and also why I decided to write No Common Ground. While my role is not to offer advice on whether a monument ought to be removed, I can assist local governments and organizations in their decision-making processes regarding monuments in their communities by providing the necessary historical context.
I also believe it’s important that I, a Southern white woman, write and speak about this topic with blunt honesty. Monument defenders cannot dismiss me as a Northern liberal who has invaded the region to tell them what to do. I’ve grown up here, too. Maybe that makes me a scalawag in their eyes. But I love this region as much as the next Southerner, who, let’s be clear, are not all white. That’s the rub about this “Southern heritage” argument, because it assumes only white heritage counts.
I’ve gotten good at handling the grumbling guys—and it’s mostly men—who lurk in the back of the room when I give talks and then attempt to challenge me. I meet accusations of political correctness with, “What you call politically correct, I call the right thing to do.” And what about that whole “erasing history” argument? Here’s my response: history is not being erased if a monument is removed. First, no monument ever taught a history lesson. Second, removal does not mean certain destruction. These statues could end up in a cemetery or on the grounds of an art or history museum, where context can be provided. And finally, the history of these statues is preserved in photographs, postcards, unveiling speeches, the minutes of the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s meetings, and (shocker) history books.
For many historians, speaking the truth based on factual evidence has become hazard duty. I’ve received nasty emails, as well as hate mail at my office. A woman wrote an article in a conservative paper that accused me of promoting “Southern ethnocide” with the goal of “destroying true history.” Another woman created a flyer describing me as an “anti-Confederate” historian. Depending on where I speak, I’ve requested additional security at my talks.
This does not stop me from being a responsible historian and an even more responsible white Southerner, because the truth—not fear—must win. And I’m not ceding ground to Lost Cause myths or apologists.
Karen L. Cox is a historian whose 'No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice' (Ferris and Ferris) will be released April 12.