Mississippi schoolchildren listen to guide in antebellum costume at the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library in 2017. (Brian Palmer)

Investigation Finds Millions in Taxpayer Dollars Goes to Confederate MemorialsJanuary 14, 2019

Through an extensive investigation into public funding for Confederate memorials, Smithsonian Magazine and the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute found that taxpayers have directed at least $40 million to Confederate statues, homes, parks, museums, libraries, and cemeteries, as well as to Confederate heritage organizations, over the past decade.

EJI has documented nearly 2000 Confederate monuments across the United States, many of which were installed to reinvent historical fact, romanticize and glorify enslavement, valorize those who fought to preserve it, and reframe Southern secession as an honorable effort to defend local autonomy and states’ rights. To oppose the civil rights movement, Southern states, elected officials, and organizations espousing white supremacy used public displays of Confederate iconography to defiantly signal their ongoing commitment to resistance to racial equality.

As Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler reported in Smithsonian Magazine, "these memorials were created and funded by Jim Crow governments to pay homage to a slave-owning society and to serve as blunt assertions of dominance over African-Americans."

Historically, the installation of Confederate monuments went hand in hand with the disenfranchisement of black people. The historical record suggests that monument-building peaked during three pivotal periods: from the late 1880s into the 1890s, as Reconstruction was being crushed; from the 1900s through the 1920s, with the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan, the increase in lynching and the codification of Jim Crow; and in the 1950s and 1960s, around the centennial of the war but also in reaction to advances in civil rights. 

Proponents today continue to use taxpayer money to erect new Confederate monuments while fiercely defending those that already stand. "A century and a half after the Civil War," Palmer and Wessler write, "American taxpayers are still helping to sustain the defeated Rebels’ racist doctrine, the Lost Cause."

Key to the Lost Cause narrative — that the Civil War was not about slavery, but was instead a fight between an industrializing North and a romanticized South — is the fallacy that slavery was benign and enslaved people were happy, loyal, and should be remembered for their faithfulness to slaveholders. "We went on many tours of the homes of the Confederacy's staunchest ideologues," Palmer and Wessler report, "and without exception we were told that the owners were good and the slaves were happy."

At Beauvoir, home of Lost Cause champion and former Confederate president Jefferson Davis, "[t]our guides and re-enactors routinely denied the realities of slavery in their presentations to visitors." The Mississippi legislature earmarks $100,000 a year for preservation of Beauvoir, which also received $17.2 million in federal and state aid after Hurricane Katrina. For its part, Alabama has spent more than $1 million over the last decade to maintain the First White House of the Confederacy as a monument to Davis.

Alabama taxpayers have also allocated more than $5.6 million to Confederate Memorial Park, which the state's all-white legislature established in 1964 as a "shrine to the honor of Alabama's citizens of the Confederacy." 

Georgia taxpayers have spent $1.1 million since 2011 on a state park in Crawfordville, located in a majority black county with one of the lowest median household incomes in the state, that honors Confederate vice president Alexander Hamilton Stephens, who said the Confederacy’s "foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition."

Wilkes County, Georgia, has spent an average of $18,000 in county funds annually since 2011, plus $80,000 in state renovation funds in 2017 alone, to memorialize Confederate secretary of state Robert Toombs, who refused to take the oath of allegiance to the United States after the war and fled the country to avoid arrest. When he returned, he worked to pass poll taxes and other measures to disenfranchise African Americans.

Virginia has spent roughly $9 million to maintain Confederate graves, disbursing hundreds of thousands of those dollars directly to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a private organization described as "arguably the leading advocate for Confederate memorials." Influential UDC leader Mildred Lewis Rutherford traveled the country in full plantation regalia sharing her conviction that slaves had been "the happiest set of people on the face of the globe"—"well-fed, well-clothed, and well-housed"—and that, after emancipation, "the Ku Klux Klan was necessary to protect the white woman."

Opposition to Confederate memorials is not new. Protests by African American leaders, the writers note, are seldom remembered today. Frederick Douglass wrote in 1870, "Monuments to the ‘lost cause’ will prove monuments of folly . . . in the memories of a wicked rebellion which they must necessarily perpetuate...It is a needless record of stupidity and wrong."

In 1931, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote critically of statues honoring Confederate leaders, "The plain truth of the matter would be an inscription something like this: 'sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.'"

After Virginia issued bonds to construct a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, John Mitchell Jr., an African American journalist and Richmond city council member during Reconstruction, covered the Dedication Day events funded by the city of Richmond for some 150,000 people. "This glorification of States Rights Doctrine—the right of secession, and the honoring of men who represented that cause," he wrote, "fosters in the Republic, the spirit of Rebellion and will ultimately result in the handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood." Virginia has spent $174,000 to maintain the Lee statute in the past decade, and Richmond police spent half a million dollars to protect the monument during a neo-Confederate protest in 2017.

Today, the South is fighting to preserve thousands of Confederate monuments. In recent years, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia have passed "heritage" laws to protect Confederate monuments in light of increasing public pressure to remove them.