Why are the United States’ confederate statues so controversial?
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The United States endured some of the most turbulent days in its recent history following the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last Saturday. In violent protests against the removal of the Robert E Lee statue, a Confederate general and slave-owner, neo-Nazis and white nationalists wielded Confederate and Nazi flags, with one man ploughing into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Towns and cities across the States have since rushed to remove symbols of glorification of a deeply troubling era in the nation’s history. But there continues to be uproar from white supremacists, and broader reaches of American society, who believe that statues of Confederate figures, such as Lee and Stonewall Jackson, should remain in place – sentiments which were echoed by Donald Trump. Why do they exist in the first place, and what do they represent? Unlike war memorials or war graves, Confederate statues were not erected as monuments of remembrance, explained Dr Adam Smith, Senior Lecturer in History at UCL. They were built between the 1890s and the 1920s – decades after the Civil War ended in 1865 – as a means for white Southerners to assert their perceived supremacy over African Americans, in the era of segregation and the birth of the Jim Crow laws. The statues reinforced the oppressive beliefs and practices of the Confederacy, a group of 11 slave-holding, southern states, which broke off from the rest of the country following the election of abolitionist president Abraham Lincoln in 1860. “They weren’t monuments put up by a grieving generation who had just fought a horrific, four-year struggle,” said Smith. “That tells us that Confederate symbols were embraced at a particular moment in American history, when the white South felt the need to reassert its dominance over black people. That fits in with the next wave of embracing of Confederate symbols which was in the late 1950s and 1960s,” Smith said. Although the Confederate flag was not the prominent symbol of the Confederacy during its existence, it started appearing again in the mid-20th century, when it was incorporated in the flags of Southern states. So why exactly are some people opposed to their removal? The events in Charlottesville were a demonstration of the extremist elements of American society that now feel emboldened following the election of Trump, Smith said.
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