WASHINGTON - A bronze statue of a lone Confederate soldier had stood watch over a main street in Alexandria, Virginia, outside Washington, for 131 years. The controversial figure was suddenly taken down, following protests in the United States after the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis.
The protests over police brutality have provoked debate over the removal of Confederate statues, monuments and memorials — symbols of hate and slavery to some people, and a revered southern cultural heritage to others.
From 1861 to 1865, the southern Confederacy and northern Union were pitted against each other during the U.S. Civil War, after the south seceded from the rest of the country over states’ rights, including owning slaves.
Several years after the Confederacy lost the War, Confederate statues and monuments began appearing in the South. Two of the most popular statues are Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Army commander, and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.
“They started to be put up around 1890, during the rise of Jim Crow laws,” said Carol Anderson, a professor of African American studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
Those laws enforced racial segregation and discriminated against black people in the South, including their voting rights.
Now, protesters shouting “Black Lives Matter” across the United States are demanding that Confederate statues and monuments be removed.
At the state capitol in Kentucky, a statue of Davis was taken down and is to be moved to a site where he was born. Another Davis statue was pulled down by protesters in Richmond, Virginia. In Montgomery, Alabama, a statue of Lee was knocked down by demonstrators at a high school.
“I think part of what we’re seeing with people yanking statues down is when the traditional institutions are not responsible to the will of the people, then the people will act,” Anderson told VOA.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 1,700 symbols of the Confederacy are on public land. The largest number are in Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina — three of the 11 states that had been part of the Confederacy.
“These are massive emblems of white supremacy,” Anderson asserted, “in public squares, parks, on the lawns of courthouses, state legislatures and governors’ mansions to put black people back in their place.”
“The point is that they were erected several decades after the war as part of the reassertion of white supremacy, said Michael Jeffries, an American studies professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
But others disagree and contend that the Confederacy’s principles were just and heroic.
Ben Jones, a former congressman from Georgia who was an actor on the TV comedy “The Dukes of Hazzard,” is an outspoken proponent of keeping Confederate statues, monuments and flags on public lands.
“These statues honor men who served their country in the military and politics," he said. “To me, it’s a recognition of the past,” which also included slavery “as their way of life at that time.”
In a VOA interview, Jones said some of his ancestors fought on the Confederate side.
This is an effort to destroy our past with “cultural cleansing,” he said.
Calling that a myth that has been perpetuated, Jim Grossman, executive director of the American History Association, said, “These statues are there to honor southern cultural heritage, but the cultural heritage they’re honoring is the era of slavery.”
Jones, who says he is not a racist and took part in the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement, calls removing the statues an “insanity” that is dividing America.
“This isn’t a worship of racism,” he said. The statues should be “put in a historical context” and remain where they are.
“There are lessons to be learned by keeping them,” Jeffries said, but somewhere else, “such as museums and libraries, rather than being placed outside in a celebratory manner.”
“We can't erase history. We don’t want to forget our history includes erecting statues to commemorate and celebrate white supremacy.”