By James W. Loewen

Confederate soldier monument, Charlottesville, VA. (Photo by Billy Hathorn via Wikimedia Commons).

Across the South — and much of the North too — Confederate flags, monuments and names dot our landscape. After white supremacists held a violent rally at the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, more people began to question these memorials and symbols. Within days, the mayor of New Orleans had taken down three Confederate statues in that city. Baltimore’s mayor took down four, including Roger Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott decision. From Helena, Montana, to Gainesville, Florida, more than 20 other Confederate monuments came down. Hundreds still stand but are getting questioned. Americans have also started questioning honors to other avowed racists, such as John C. Calhoun in Minneapolis, Orville Hubbard in Dearborn, and Edwin DeBarr at the University of Oklahoma.

These controversies offer teachable moments. Suddenly communities display new interest in U.S. history. Teachers can get students involved in researching the issues.

The main point to get across is that every monument is “a tale of two eras” – what it’s about and when it went up. A monument — or historical movie, play, or novel — may say nothing accurate about the former, but it always reveals something about the latter. After students realize this, they learn twice as much when they encounter the past on the landscape, on screen, or in print.

The main point to get across is that every monument is “a tale of two eras” – what it’s about and when it went up.

Consider South Carolina’s monument for its Gettysburg soldiers: “Abiding faith in the sacredness of states rights provided their creed here.” An earlier essay in this series quoted the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” showing that the state’s leaders opposed states’ rights. So the monument is flatly wrong about the 1860s.

Students who research the stone learn that it went up in 1965. At that time, South Carolina’s leaders indeed believed “in the sacredness of states rights,” which they used to try to stave off U.S. insistence that they desegregate their schools and let African Americans vote. So the monument has something to teach about the 1960s.

Educators cannot present the Confederacy and the Union as moral equals without harming historical fact. This can be hard to handle with White parents and students whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy. We must grant that many individuals fought because they were told to, friends were joining, or to protect against invasion. Many were not fighting for slavery on a personal level. Nevertheless, they were fighting for the Confederacy, whose reason for existence was slavery in the service of White supremacy.

Educators cannot present the Confederacy and the Union as moral equals without harming historical fact.

Without educators and communities deepening understanding of Confederate history and engaging in dialogue, we will continue to see white students abusing these symbols and creating their own examples of Confederate public history, as some did in Bloomington, Indiana, in 2016. Students countered LGBTQ students organizing rainbow flag displays of pride by coming to school the next day wearing Confederate battle flag symbols. Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) members took issue with the drawing a false equivalency between the rainbow flag and the Confederate flag, pointing out that one is a symbol of support and inclusion and the other represents a long history of racial violence and oppression. The LGBTQ students and their allies used this moment to meet with the superintendent and the hours-long meeting resulted in a policy banning the Confederate flag on campus.

If you have no local history controversies, you can get students doing local history anyway. Ask them: Who should get a historical marker in your community? Whose statue or monument deserves at least a corrective marker, if not full removal? Even when students don’t actually change the landscape, they learn many skills when they actually do history like this.

James W. Loewen, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont, is the author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.” Each article in this series will come with a short annotated bibliography, often to items Loewen wrote, for educators seeking additional information. For more information and resources see: James W. Loewen’s official web page.


Essential Reading:

John C. Calhoun
  • Loewen, James W. , “Ten Questions for Yale President Peter Salovey,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/10/2016, B11-13; also online at History News Network, Treats the issue of naming places — in this case a dormitory — for famous dead people who did bad things, in this case John C. Calhoun.
  • Right after he took down the three Confederate monuments in New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu explained why, in a speech he titled, simply, “Truth.” It went viral. You can read and see it here:


Articles in This Series: