Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Southern cities are lowering the flags and considering bringing down Confederate memorials, too. But the character of a city is harder to transform.
Today, 150 years after the Confederate Army was defeated in its fight to preserve slavery, the flags and memorials honoring that great Lost Cause are finally coming down in cities across the South.
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley had the Confederate flag, in all of its variations, removed from state Capitol grounds today. Bentley told a reporter that his decision on this came partly in response to the tragic Charleston killings last week. And also because, as he told a news reporter:
We are facing some major issues in this state regarding the budget and other matters that we need to deal with. This had the potential to become a major distraction as we go forward. I have taxes to raise, we have work to do. And it was my decision that the flag needed to come down.
In other words, Bentley didn’t wake up with a #Blacklivesmatter epiphany about the deeper, racist meaning about the Confederate flags. It sounds like he more just wanted to get in front of a potential PR headache. Whether the governor’s gesture will make a difference in race relations in the city or beyond is another matter.
The Confederate insignia is still almost-ubiquitous across Montgomery—will they also dismantle the “First White House of the Confederacy,” a tourist attraction that sits right across the street from the state capitol building?
“Montgomery has 59 markers and monuments to the Confederacy. Most of our streets are named after Confederate soldiers,” Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative executive director Bryan Stevenson told The Marshall Project. “The two largest public high schools [in Montgomery] are Robert E. Lee High and Jefferson Davis High—those are 90 percent black.”
Still, ever since South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate Flag from state capitol grounds (which won’t happen until after legislative debates over the summer) a domino effect appears to have set in, where other cities and states are exploring doing the same.
The other big Confederate-cleansing announcement came out of New Orleans, where Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants a city statue commemorating Confederate Army commander Robert E. Lee removed. Landrieu couched his decision not as avoiding a “distraction,” like Bentley, but as a question of whether such memorials distort the city’s health and character.
Symbols matter - must ask if prominent city symbols reflect who we are today or if they ever really reflected who we were. #WelcomeTableNOLA— Mitch Landrieu (@MayorLandrieu) June 24, 2015
"So on this day; let me as a government leader acknowledge and apologize for the country’s history and legacy of slavery." #WelcomeTableNOLA— Mitch Landrieu (@MayorLandrieu) June 24, 2015
The New Orleans statue stands in Lee Circle, and was created by the sculptor Alexander Doyle, who also sculpted two other Confederate statues in the city. One is of General Albert Sydney Johnston and the other of General P.G.T. Beauregard, who was instrumental in surrendering to the Union Army and winding down the Civil War. Beauregard also helped create and popularize the Confederate Army battle flag, the “rebel flag” that today is the subject of controversy.
While New Orleans, like Montgomery, has no shortage of other Confederate markers, few cities are as saturated with them as Richmond, Virginia—the eventual landing place of the White House of the Confederacy. Five huge statues of Confederate Army leaders are parked across Monument Avenue in Richmond like huge Monopoly game pieces. If Landrieu is correct in associating a city’s vitality with its street ornaments, then Richmond is probably the best case study.
In designating Monument Avenue one of “10 Great Streets in America” in 2007, the American Planning Association called it “an excellent example of the late 19th century Beaux-Arts–inspired urban boulevard design that emphasizes order, symmetry, hierarchy, and planning.” The National Park Service calls the Monument Avenue Historic District “the nation’s only grand residential boulevard with monuments of its scale surviving almost unaltered to the present day” and that it is “nationally significant for its architecture and as an example of city planning.”
Which brings up the question asked yesterday in the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper: “How does the Confederacy define Richmond?”
The same question is being pondered in Pensacola, Florida, the “City of Five Flags”—one of which is a Confederate flag. There, both city and county governments have gone back and forth about whether any iteration of the Confederate flag should be flown on city government property, as currently stands.
"I think what the Confederate flag represents to a lot of people is a part of our history that doesn't need to be celebrated," city councilwoman Sherri Myers told the Pensacola News Journal. "I have a problem flying those flags (other than the American flag)."
And in Mississippi, the last place that anyone thought would let go of symbols of the Lost Cause, House Speaker Philip Gunn has called for a Confederate symbol to be removed from the state flag. This is probably not the effect that Dylann Roof, the man arrested for the Charleston shootings, had in mind.
"We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us," said Gunn in a statement. "As a Christian, I believe our state's flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi's flag."
A huge statue of Robert E. Lee stands in front of Virginia’s capitol and governor’s mansion, where Governor Terry McAuliffe just ordered the state to stop creating license plates with Confederate symbols (plates made by Virginia prison inmates). In 2011, the city of Lexington, Virginia, voted to ban all displays of Confederate flags on public properties. And last year, public outcry almost led to the removal of a Confederate flag hovering above Danville, Virginia, the last noted Confederate capitol after it was dislodged from Richmond right before the Civil War ended.
Withdrawing license plates and drawing down flags are simple tasks, though, compared with removing monuments, which are literally rooted in city streets. And ultimately, a city’s character and vitality has less to do with its landmarks and more with how governments treat the people who live there. As Lori Latrice Martin, Louisiana State University sociology professor and author of the book Black Asset Poverty and the Enduring Racial Divide, recently wrote:
We need a sincere and genuine commitment to social justice issues around matters of race that goes deeper than just scratching the surface of our torrid racial past. We need to understand that if and when the flag comes down in Charleston that children of color will continue to live in communities, sit in schools, and be driven down roads named for slaveholders, confederate generals, and segregationists.
Or, as Mike Williams of the Sons of Confederate Veterans put it to AL.com, "If you don't change people's hearts, changing a flag won't do anything toward racism."