Student leaders at the University of Texas in Austin are seeking to remove from their campus a statue of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis, which recently was defaced with the words “Davis must fall” and “Emancipate UT.”
An overwhelming majority of the Student Government adopted a resolution in March calling for removal of the statue because it represents “slavery and racism.” Student body president Xavier Rotnofsky said those things are “just not in line with the university’s core values.”
The university has not made a decision on the resolution. Gary Susswein, director of media relations for UT-Austin, told USA Today College that the university is going through a presidential transition, so it is not an appropriate time for outgoing leadership to make a major decision about a change in policy.
Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center for American History at UT-Austin, says the World War I-era statue “was not conceived as a tribute to the confederacy, it was used to show reconciliation.” Students and the NAACP say Jefferson Davis’s statue has no place on campus because he has no affiliation with the university or the state beyond Texas’s ties to the Confederacy.
The Associated Press reports that the number of sites on public and private land in Texas that honor the Confederacy is growing, despite opposition from the NAACP and others. The Texas Historical Commission has recognized more than 1000 sites statewide, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans are planning more, including a 10-foot obelisk to honor Confederate soldiers buried at the city-owned Oakwood Cemetery, just a few miles from the Davis statue.
Other projects include a Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas, featuring 32 waving flags representing Texas regiments of the Confederate army and 13 columns symbolizing the Confederate states, and a Confederate Veterans Memorial Plaza in downtown Palestine, Texas, near what the NAACP says was the site of a lynching.
Sons of Confederate Veterans spokesman Marshall Davis, whose organization is fighting Texas’s decision to ban Confederate flag license plates, said these memorials and statues are part of an effort to “honor our heroes.”
More than a generation after the Civil War, Southern whites began asserting their social and cultural dominance by embracing a revisionist history that portrayed the Civil War as a conflict in which the Confederate cause was heroic, honorable, and deserving of tribute. The conflict was recast as one unrelated to the institution of slavery, and the lesson of the Civil War as well as the suffering of generations of enslaved Black people was lost. This myth ignored the true brutality of that time period and distorted our national memory of the intermingled links between American slavery, the Civil War, and race.
The claim to Confederate pride re-emerged in the 1950s and 1960s in efforts to assert defiance in the face of a new threat: the growing civil rights movement. Southern white resistance to the civil rights movement on the national stage often shrouded itself in references to the Civil War and the Confederacy’s “bravery in the face of federal tyranny.”
In a not-so-subtle statement of continued Southern commitment to white supremacy, Confederate veterans groups enjoyed renewed interest after World War II and into the 1950s and 1960s, and new groups were formed. In 1959, the Texas chapter of the Children of the Confederacy erected a plaque in the Texas state capitol building which insisted “the war between the states was not a rebellion nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”
Efforts to recast the Civil War and its origins have continued. In 1996, Alabama state senator Charles Davidson supported a bill to fly the Confederate flag atop the state capitol building in Montgomery, asserting that slavery was a “family institution” and “civilizing influence” that gave slaves education and the Christian religion, for which “those converted Black Southerners are most grateful today.”
The legacy of slavery, emancipation, white supremacy, and revisionism in the South, and throughout this nation, continues to shape discourse about racial history and impede progress toward honest and hopeful engagement with the past. EJI’s race and poverty project is focused on developing a more informed understanding of America’s racial history and how it relates to contemporary challenges.
EJI believes that reconciliation with our nation’s difficult past cannot be achieved without truthfully confronting history and finding a way forward that is thoughtful and responsible. EJI began that effort by partnering with the Black Heritage Council of the Alabama Historical Commission to sponsor three historical markers in downtown Montgomery that memorialize the domestic slave trade that flourished in Alabama’s capital city. The markers in downtown Montgomery were dedicated on December 10, 2013.