A Monumental Discussion: Julie Mujic

As the events in Charlottesville were taking place, I finished reading a new book by Washington Post journalist Steven Levingston called Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle over Civil Rights. Levingston offers a chronological narrative focused on the evolution of President John F. Kennedy’s views on civil rights, as interpreted and influenced by Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the Civil Rights Movement itself. The book is insightful and compelling and served as a crucial frame for my contemplation of the Confederate monuments debate.

Levingston refers back to the era of slavery in the United States, the Civil War, and the development of Jim Crow regularly in assessing the progress of civil rights in America. He clearly knows that the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement are connected and cannot be separated, just as John Kennedy asserted in his famous June 11, 1963 address to the nation following the successful, yet contested, integration of the University of Alabama. Kennedy reminded the nation:

One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.

We cannot talk about the Civil Rights Movement without talking about Lincoln, slavery, and contested notions of freedom. We cannot talk about Confederate monuments without this same context. The Confederate monuments were a symbol of northern acquiescence to Jim Crow. They were designed, funded, and erected in an era when economic progress outweighed concerns about individual rights. Ideas about racial equality and opportunity were subsumed by discussions of colonization and spreading democracy. But as the Civil Rights Movement showed us, these ideas, these desires, were merely dormant, not dissipated.

As Levingston noted, Civil Rights activist James Baldwin called out northerners in July 1960 as being complicit in the oppression of southern blacks. Just as it was true in 1860, it was true in 1960: “Neither the Southerner nor the Northerner is able to look on the Negro simply as a man…They are two sides of the same coin, and the South will not change – cannot change – until the North changes.”[1] Despite decades of attempted moral suasion, words did not persuade southerners to end slavery prior to the Civil War; only northerners willing to sacrifice their lives did that. And, one hundred years later, it again took northern sympathy and activism to hear the call from southern blacks for justice, and push the president into action.

Now, two former border states take the lead. As prominent communities in Kentucky and Maryland remove their Confederate statues, we wait to see whether actions from these areas can trickle into the Deep South. Will the North again compel change in the South? What provokes these changes now, in this moment?

I believe the removal of the Confederate statues is the right decision. It does not make sense to me why we commemorate treason that was based on the right to enslave others. Confederate secession was not the high moral ground. It was not in line with aspiring to the words of the Declaration of Independence. To sustain Confederate monuments sends a message that it is necessary to celebrate the effort, even when that effort was malicious. To sustain Confederate monuments sends a message that there is something noble and heroic in the Confederate cause, that it would be noble or heroic to mimic it. There is a clear and easy line that can be drawn between celebrating the Confederacy and attempting to emulate their behavior. And if that line is encouraged by the existence of these monuments, then surely there is an equally clear message to white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and others that those doomed, failed, horrific beliefs and failures should also be continued.

Removing the monuments at this time likely has something to do with control. There is only so much that individual Americans can control during a tumultuous time like this one. The past year has brought to light that we absolutely do not live in a post-racial society. Americans struggle with integrating perceptions of difference into our perceptions of equality, thus Civil War historians need to take a stronger lead in contextualizing current events. Debate over the Confederate flag and monuments is not new, but pulling them down as a response to current national discourse is. As a Civil War historian, I do not care what compels communities to remove the monuments; if the course of these current events is the impetus, so be it. What I do care about is that they are removed, so that they can become artifacts in our telling of the failure of the Confederate idea, rather than ongoing embarrassments signaling our historic and ongoing failures of racial equality.

The monuments must come down. They represent inequality, oppression, and a celebration of treason that should not be reconciled with the future of our nation.


[1] James Baldwin, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” Esquire, July 1960.

29 Responses to A Monumental Discussion: Julie Mujic

  1. Time to unsubscribe. These monument are now an integral part of American history. You start with these then the founding fathers will be next for the socialist cleansing agenda. At the time of the war, the Fed government did not have the constitutional authority to wage war on any state. The government our founding fathers gave us no longer exist and then we now have one they feared, an all powerful central government that has abused their power. I know many here only want to focus on the battles and ignore the politics and constitutionality of the whole affair. The truth is the south fought for nationhood as the founding fathers did before them.

    1. In 1860, the South was controlled by an oligarchy of cruel slave masters. They preyed not only on their own slaves but also the vast majority of whites who were dirt poor, illiterate and downtrodden. Because of extremely restrictive voting regulations, many white men throughout the South didn’t even have the right to vote. These poor saps were conned into supporting secession through cynical appeals to white supremacy and racism.

      Robert, your so-called Southern Heritage and nationhood is a myth. Thank god the South lost. Slavery was abolished (although Jim Crow re-established a somewhat milder form of it a dozen years after the CW) and our blessed nation – the United States of America – remained the United States of America.

    2. I’d hate to see you unsubscribe just because you read something from someone that you disagree with. If you stick with us through the whole series, you’ll see a variety of opinions and, most importantly, I hope you’ll see a couple ideas that will give you some things to think about, even if you don’t agree.

  2. Very disappointing discussion of what the monuments represent & the timing of the removals. These attitudes & actions are totally hypocritical as the same people advocating monument removal also support sanctuary states & cities defying federal law enforcement. They want to somehow sanitize the alleged symbolisms of the monuments; forgetting the major one “state’s rights” while focusing entirely on just one states rights issue, slavery. Illogical unless your goal is political correctness.

    1. Dan, there might have been multiple “states’ rights” being contested in the late 1850s and early 1860s, but slavery was clearly THE issue at the heart of it all. I agree that states’ rights is a modern issue that needs to be debated and defended, but it’s wrong to apply today’s perspective disproportionately on 1860. Multiple states in their articles of secession specifically articulated that slavery was THE right and THE issue at stake–a fact that tends to get lost today by people who make the states’ rights argument. Don’t take my word for it, though–go read them for yourself.

    2. Read the letters and speeches of the Secession Commissioners who were assigned by the first seven to persuade the others to come into the fold. Read Stephens. Read the Secession Ordinances. Or don’t and keep believing that the “major one” was “state’s rights”. It’s 2017, by the way – not 1860.

  3. I think the definition of treason is skewed according to victory here. We’re Washington and Gates traitors as well? There is a Washington statue in England, so I think the “traitor” argument is like Swiss cheese. Claiming all Confederate monuments are Jim Crow based is also an over reach and generic which is a false interpretation to justify an agenda. I would suggest you look again into the 1911 Manassas Peace Monument, dedicated by both sides. Is this too a Jim Crow monument? Or how about the Alexandria monument, funded partially by Union veterans? We need to look at these monuments in a case by case manner. Painting broad brush assumptions like above is wrong and dangerous when done by historians. I’m all for relooking at these symbols, but let’s do so in an honest and open manner without our modern day bias.

    1. That’s a valid point – looking at monuments on a case by case basis. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee and a direct descendant of a guy who served in the Army of the Potomac for three years but I have no problem with monuments placed on battlefields. At the other end of the spectrum I have a big problem with monuments put up on governmental property/ erected during the Klan/Jim Crow eras because many of those were not about “history” but, instead, about sending a repulsive message – and, not surprisingly they tend to be the ones that the neo-Nazis, KKKers, and white supremacists (many of whom have no CSA ancestors) rally around. As for whether Washington was a “traitor”, the answer may well be “yes” (ignoring any nuances about living in a colony, etc.). But so far as I know he never took a specific oath which he violated – unlike a number of prominent Confederates. In fact, while we regard Arnold as the epitome of a “traitor”, there is the interesting question of what/who he committed treason against in the context of 1780. We do know that he contributed significantly to the rebellion by his actions and sacrifice at the critical fighting in upstate New York in September/October, 1777.

    2. Regards to your point about Washington and Gates: Yes, they were traitors to the British, and rebels to the cause. I have no problems admitting that.

      In regards to your monument about Washington in London: That was given as a gift from the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1921– that’s 138 years after the Peace Treaty of Paris that gave the United States its independence. If the same timeline were to be put to Confederate monuments following the end of the Civil War in 1865, the first Confederate monument wouldn’t have gone up until 2003.

      1. Then let’s get them up! 😉 change your math though..we fought a second war with them too…bump that up to 1815. Point is…the traitor argument is ripe with inaccuracies and falsehoods. I’ll buy the Jim Crow argument, not calling the men traitors.

      2. Actually, the “traitor argument” isn’t “rife with inaccuracies and falsehoods”. It’s “rife” with uncomfortable truths and also leads to possible distinctions regarding who the “treason” was against and whether the “traitor” had specifically taken an oath of alliegance. It’s no different than admitting that two individuals engaged in a “rebellion”, although only one rebellion was illegal under the Constitution. Areas for complex discussion ….

    3. “I think the definition of treason is skewed according to victory here.” But isn’t history almost always written by the winners? That’s one of the fruits of victory, for good or it.. The only exception I can think of is the authorship by Jubal Early, D. H. Hill, Dabney Maurey, and others of the Lost Cause myth, which became the de-facto “history” of the Civil War for more than 125 years.

      As you know, I believe in the argument that guys were fighting based on geographic loyalty and the precedence of state over federal identification, so I tread carefully when it comes to the “traitor” argument. That might be different for former U.S. officers than others. I have never seen the actual oath U.S. army officers swore when they went into the service but would be glad to see it.

      1. Chris: I believe that the following is the oath as it would have been taken by Lee, Jackson, etc. upon entry into the Army before the War:

        “I,______, do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the constitution of the United States. I,_______, do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over me.”

        The West Point oath changed over time. I believe that by 1857 it read:

        “I, ______ of the State of _______ aged _____ years, ______ months, having been selected for an appointment as Cadet in the Military Academy of the United States, do hereby engage with the consent of my (Parent or Guardian) in the event of my receiving such appointment, that I will serve in the army of the United States for eight years, unless sooner discharged by competent authority. And I ____________ DO SOLEMNLY SWEAR [emphasis original], that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them HONESTLY and FAITHFULLY [emphasis original], against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever; and that I will observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the Officers appointed over me, according to the Rules and Articles of War. ”

        Hence the distinction you and I have both alluded to regarding those former officers who
        fought for the CSA.

  4. Monuments are only things. Changing the hearts and minds if people will only happen when it becomes personal to each and every person.

  5. Monuments are only things. Changing the hearts and minds of people will only happen when it becomes personal to each and every person.

  6. Ms Mujic, Yours is the most reasoned and straightforward essay so far of this series. One can respect Lee and such as skilled military enemies of the US; on par with Yamamoto, Cornwallis, or Giap. Nothing more. The monuments to those who fought to destroy this nation and oppress millions must come down.

      1. Consistent with my post above, they should stand. I would, however, advocate doing to a statue of Tarleton or Cornwallis placed on state capitol grounds or at a major intersection of an American city what the Goldman family wanted to do with O.J.’s Heisman.

  7. I disagree that secession was treason and you inflame people’s thoughts by saying so. Treason from what? A tyrannical government pushing tariffs, mandating that raw products be sent to northern factories and mills to make money off slave labor? No injustices were getting the Congress stamp of approval ask one part of the country controlled another part. Slavery was an issue but in that the north was making money off the backs of slave labor, or trying to…their solution was to strong are southern farmers to acquiesce to northern businesses. So was the north blameless NO..Did they suggest a plan to end slavery NO. So traitors.no. Secessionist yes…check out the Constitution of separating from a tyrannical government

    Sent from my Sprint Samsung Galaxy S8.

  8. The North had a few plans to end slavery. One was to simply abolish it state-by-state. This one was pretty popular. Another was to send formerly enslaved people back to Africa. This one wasn’t well-received, as many had been born in the United States and had few ties to Africa by the 1850 and 60s. Another plan was to buy out slave owners, compensating them financially for their losses due to abolition. This one just never grew legs. So there were alternatives, but the Confederacy just kept moving south and west, taking their chattel slaves with them and hoping, I guess, that no one would notice. Thankfully, some did.

    1. Lincoln also was not categorically opposed to the notion of compensation. He made overtures of that type to Border State leaders in the first part of 1862.

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