Honor all Mississippians by removing the Confederate monuments

Published 10:13 am Thursday, August 24, 2017

By Monika Bhagat-Kennedy

The recent violence in Charlottesville has renewed discussion of the appropriate place of Confederate memorials across the nation. On Saturday, Aug. 12, in a university town not unlike ours, white supremacists gathered to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Chanting slogans such as “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil,” these individuals expressed poisonous, exclusionary, and ahistorical views about who really belongs in America.

It’s no coincidence that these forces rally around symbols of the Confederacy. As UM history professors documented in a May 2016 report to the Chancellor’s Contextualization Committee, these monuments promote a misguided “Lost Cause” ideology that served as a platform for ongoing white supremacy. These ideas were ingrained in the violent mob that opposed the integration of the university in 1962 and were even ingrained in me, the daughter of Indian immigrants who was taught in the public schools of Germantown, Tennessee, that the Civil War was about “states’ rights.” It was only in college that I read the Confederate states’ secessionist declarations and Alexander Stephens’s 1861 Cornerstone Address that make clear that the Confederacy’s primary goal was the maintenance of white supremacy and the institution of slavery.

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The Lost Cause ideology promoted by the Confederate monuments in the UM Lyceum Circle and the Square presents Mississippi as the domain of white Mississippians who fought to defend a land that was exclusively their own. In reality, however, it was just as much home to those whom the Confederates fought to keep enslaved and for whom — but for an arguable respite during Reconstruction — the rights of citizenship were denied for a century longer. Fifty-five percent of Mississippians were enslaved when the Civil War broke out and black Americans continued to make up a majority of the state’s population until 1930. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Lost Cause ideology underpinned the idea that the state of Mississippi and its resources belonged only to those who died fighting for the Confederacy and their progeny — not the enslaved who died and suffered to build the state’s infrastructure and economy and their descendants. It was also instrumental in justifying the exclusion of a significant number of Mississippians access to the University until 1962 when a black student finally enrolled amidst riotous and violent opposition.

In recent days, Duke University and the University of Texas-Austin have either removed or have announced plans to remove statues of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee and others from places of prominence on their campus. Community leaders in Baltimore, Annapolis, Gainesville and New Orleans have also taken down Confederate markers in their cities. The conversation is underway in nearby Memphis and the state of Tennessee. It is time for the University of Mississippi and the city of Oxford — especially given this area’s particular history on race — to join the discussion in a positive and productive way, to lead by example, and to declare publicly their opposition to the Mississippi state law that prohibits the removal of these monuments.

Allowing these monuments to remain in places of prominence on university campuses and in front of courthouses in city centers sanctions the intolerance and injustice promoted by Lost Cause ideology. While “contextualization” may help somewhat to correct the misconceptions that were imparted to those of us who grew up in the region and to others, it doesn’t do nearly enough to address the role of Confederate monuments in promoting an ideology that provided cover for the violent oppression and exploitation of black Mississippians and their exclusion from this university. Nearly 40 percent of Mississippians today identify as black and many are descended from those whom the Confederates fought to keep in bondage. Maintaining Confederate monuments that were part and parcel of Lost Cause ideology in such prominent spaces sends the message that Oxford and the university belong only to white Mississippians.

Considering the recent exposure given to ideologies that seek to assert America as the domain of white Americans only — sometimes expressly building on the concept of the Lost Cause — now is the time to demonstrate that Oxford and the university reject the idea that America or Mississippi belongs only to some and not others based on their racial or ethnic background.The UM Administration should consider all legal options for the prompt relocation of the monument from the Lyceum Circle — a symbolic entrance to the University though which community members and visitors must pass — to the Confederate cemetery or another place where those who wish to can reflect on the tragedy of deaths resulting from a war in defense of slavery and the lasting impact of Lost Cause ideology. Likewise, the City of Oxford should consider how to relocate the Confederate statue in the Square — which stands in front of an active courthouse bearing its original 1907 inscription and with no subsequent elucidating context whatsoever — to the cemetery or another appropriate site for reflection.

Monika Bhagat-Kennedy is Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Mississippi.