IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Confederate statues prove parts of American history are just a lost cause

A few months ago, a Robert E. Lee statue was melted down. But parts of America’s revisionist history remain as solid as ever. 

America is a glutton for revisionism. 

The presumptive GOP presidential nominee lied with such regularity — more than 30,000 times during his presidency, in fact — that the former president's speeches began to necessitate real-time fact-checking.

A movie that’s been described as “three hours of racist propaganda” is considered America’s first “blockbuster” film

People don’t put up monuments to things just for the sake of putting up monuments.”

Michael paul williams

And it was just four years ago that parts of America finally decided to stop paying homage to the people who literally fought with their lives to keep Black people enslaved. 

The ire toward Confederate monuments among Black Americans and their allies didn't suddenly emerge after the killing of George Floyd in 2020, or even in response to the Charleston church massacre five years before. Racist killings in the 20th century had moved Black communities to demand their removal, at least as far back as the Civil Rights era.

But how did these statues even come to pervade neighborhoods throughout the U.S.?

After the South lost to the North in the Civil War, Southerners pretended the fight wasn’t actually about slavery. Many of them learned it from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group of women who boasted familial ties to Confederates and gave ammunition to the “Lost Cause” movement. The fruits of their dubious labor can be seen everywhere, from military bases to whitewashed history textbooks

Charlottesville's Statue Of Confederate General Robert E. Lee Melted Down
A worker positions the head of a monument to Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee that formerly stood in Charlottesville, Va., before it is melted at a foundry on Oct. 21, 2023.Eze Amos / Getty Images file

It wasn’t until 2020 that America saw a wave of nearly 100 statues dedicated to the Confederacy come down. Just last October, a statue of Robert E. Lee wasn’t just removed, it was melted down.

The removal of the statues hasn't necessarily been hailed as a great lever of progress. In the broader context of race reform in America, monuments can seem like child’s play. 

“In 2020, of all the Black things people were asking for, maybe 165th on the list was the removal of statues,” journalist Michael Harriot said. “I think that’s why they were removed.”

While acknowledging that the statues are inarguably offensive and racist, Harriot suggests the symbols' removal is a weak compromise in place of actual reforms of more consequential policies, like voting rights and policing. “I think part of the reason they were removed is because they were so far down on the list of what really matters to Black people,” the “Black AF History” author told MSNBC. “They were a symbolic gesture of what we call a racial reckoning that really wasn’t one.”

Journalist Michael Paul Williams doesn’t discount the power of the moments or their destruction. Williams, a longtime columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia, won a Pulitzer Prize for columns he wrote in 2020 that explored the ramifications of monuments coming down in the former capital of the Confederacy.

“People don’t put up monuments to things just for the sake of putting up monuments,” Williams said. “They’re a way to express a narrative or change a narrative.”

That narrative, he says, is one of white supremacy. “You will find no other nation on this earth that puts up monuments to people who tried to overthrow the government," he said. "It makes no sense, except as an expression of the desire to maintain white supremacy.” 

With more than 700 Confederate statues remaining, that desire still appears awfully strong. If you can judge a nation by who it considers its heroes, then an accurate American history could be a “lost cause” after all.