ATLANTA (AP) — Calls to remove Confederate imagery from public places multiplied rapidly across the South and beyond Tuesday, with opponents eyeing state flags, license plates and statues of Civil War politicians and generals.
The startling movement, driven by the killing of nine black churchgoers in an apparent racist attack in Charleston, South Carolina, has made converts of politicians who have long supported or stood silent on such symbols. Many of the efforts appear to have the muscle to succeed.
Statehouse displays such as the Confederate battle flag flying in South Carolina are coming under the heaviest fire. But the familiar banner, with its star-studded blue ‘X’ overlaying a field of red, is just one of scores, if not hundreds, of state-sanctioned displays that honor the vanquished Confederacy and the era of Jim Crow segregation that lasted for more than a century after the end of the Civil War.
The homages — from veterans’ memorials and statues of politicians to counties, streets, government buildings and public schools named for Confederate figures and subsequent white supremacists — haven’t always generated the same political and social tensions as the battle flag, and Confederate heritage groups say the outcry is misplaced, despite widely seen images of what appears to be the church shooting suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, holding the rebel flag.
At the least, however, the flag and other tributes remain a constant reminder of the nation’s perpetual struggle with race, and of some Southerners’ defiance of the federal government’s efforts on civil rights.
“Statues and monuments aren’t history,” said Stan Deaton, a historian for the Georgia Historical Society. “They are what we choose to tell future generations about the past. ... It’s a very delicate subject, and let’s not kid ourselves: So much of it has to do with race.”
In Kentucky, the Republican candidate for governor, Matt Bevin, and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis should be removed from the Capitol rotunda, where it sits just feet from a statue of Abraham Lincoln, whose election spurred the South’s secession. Both men were born in Kentucky, a border state during the Civil War.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, said he wanted the state to stop issuing a vanity license plate for the Sons of Confederate Veterans that includes the battle flag. “Even its display on state-issued license tags, in my view, is unnecessarily divisive and hurtful to too many of our people,” McAuliffe said, speaking in Richmond, the second and final capital of the Confederacy.
In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and lawmakers of both parties called for removing a Capitol grounds bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader. The longest-serving black legislator in Alabama said he plans to introduce a resolution that would remove the Confederate flags that fly outside the Alabama Capitol next to a towering monument to Confederate soldiers.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office said the city should consider changes to several monuments, including a prominent statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee near downtown, as the city prepares to celebrate the 300th anniversary of its founding.
Top Mississippi Republicans appear divided over the state’s flag, the last of the 50 state banners to include a specific image of the battle flag. House Speaker Philip Gunn said Monday that the image, which appears in the top left corner of the Mississippi flag, is offensive and should be removed. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves responded Tuesday that the decision should be up to Mississippians, who voted 2-to-1 in 2001 to keep the flag. Gov. Phil Bryant, also a Republican, said he supports that referendum result.
Chris McDaniel, a state senator and tea party hero who nearly unseated U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran last year, decried Gunn’s call. “A cultural or historical cleansing of all things potentially offensive will do nothing to alleviate the problems caused by racism,” he said.
Deaton, the Georgia historian, said McDaniel misses the point. “Symbols do matter and naming practices do matter,” he said, arguing that the Confederate monuments across the region, placed mostly by Confederate veterans and women’s groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, offer “a very narrow interpretation of the past.”
There were signs that the tension was spilling beyond the political realm. Vandals have tagged several monuments in recent days, including a Charleston statue of John C. Calhoun, a strong defender of slavery and secession before the war. It and other targets in Maryland and Texas were spray-painted with phrases such as “Black Lives Matter,” a slogan rooted in recent police shootings of black men.
The leader of a national Confederate heritage organization argues that Roof’s actions should not reflect on American citizens who identify with the Confederacy.
“First it’s the flags, then the monuments, then the streets names, then the holidays. I feel like it’s open season on anything Confederate,” said Kelly Barrow, commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, adding that the vandalism scares him.
“Is someone going to be attacked because they have an S.C.V. sticker on their car? We’re open targets, battle flag or not,” he said.
Barrow, based south of Atlanta, said the discussion over the monuments should at least wait until after the church victims’ funerals.
“Bury the dead, then we can sit down and talk about all this,” he said.
Najee Washington, whose grandmother Ethel Lance was among the nine slain last week during Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, said it would be meaningful to her family to remove the flag: “It’s just a part of the past that we don’t need to be reminded of every day.”