How a national movement toppled hundreds of Confederate symbols
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How a national movement toppled hundreds of Confederate symbols
A figure atop the South’s Defenders Memorial, a confederate monument, was toppled by Hurricane Laura in Lake Charles, La., Aug. 27, 2020. The murder of George Floyd nearly two years ago sparked critical conversations about systemic racism in America, and also unleashed a movement to remove, relocate and rename monuments and other symbols of the Confederacy. William Widmer/The New York Times.

by Audra D.S. Burch

NEW YORK, NY.- An unsparing examination of systemic racism has unfolded throughout America since the murder of George Floyd almost two years ago, leading to critical conversations about long-standing inequities.

But perhaps the most physical transformation has come from the removal, relocating or renaming of at least 230 Confederate symbols since his death.

Nearly 157 years after the last battle of the Civil War was waged, the United States is reevaluating how — or even if — the Confederacy should be memorialized. Every symbol erected and every symbol dismantled speak to the political calculations and struggle between enshrining heritage and enduring hate.

From Virginia to California, symbolism has been removed, relocated or renamed: statues of horse-mounted soldiers, the names affixed to schools, the names of streets coursing through cities large and small, a state song whose lyrics disparaged a U.S. president and sympathized with the Confederacy, the name of a lake that runs by a mariner’s museum and park.

While this vexing conversation gained urgency after Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, the rising tide of removals and renaming of Confederate symbols has closely followed racial violence over the past decade.

More than a dozen memorials were addressed after a white supremacist who posed with a Confederate battle flag killed nine worshippers in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015; two years later, even more were removed after a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the city’s plan to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general.

But then they came down like dominoes in the spring and summer of 2020 amid more than 2,000 protests nationwide.

The social justice movement quickly spread beyond one man’s death because the kindling was already there. Activists pointed to the myriad ways in which racism helped create disparities, and they called for racial justice in many facets of American life.

Others declared that the nation’s history and Southern pride were unjustly under siege and in danger of being erased.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which supports the removal of Confederate symbols, began tracking how many exist across the country after the church shooting in Charleston.

Since Floyd’s murder May 25, 2020, at least 230 monuments and memorials — relics that stood sentry in front of courthouses, college campuses, town squares and public parks — have been dismantled, hauled away, vandalized or given new names.

Some were toppled in disorderly waves at the hands of protesters.

Some were methodically unearthed, piece by piece, by government workers responding to the protests and fury.

By the end of 2020, 157 memorials — some built during the Jim Crow segregation era — were gone or renamed. Virginia had removed 60 symbols, the most of any state, followed by 18 in North Carolina and 15 in Texas.

In Oklahoma, cranes took apart a fountain and monument from a public square. In Missouri, a school for gifted children that had been named after a Confederate Army lieutenant dropped the man’s last name. In Arizona, a brass plaque honoring Confederate soldiers was stolen from Picacho Peak State Park.

But some of the first big moments unfolded in the South, the birthplace of the Confederacy and still home to most of the imagery.

In Birmingham, Alabama, on the Sunday after Floyd’s death, protesters targeted the 115-year-old Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument. They spray-painted it and chipped at the base of the 52-foot-tall sandstone obelisk. At some point, the crowd took more drastic measures and tried to yank it down with a rope and a truck. The city’s mayor promised to finish the job despite legislation forbidding its removal. What played out in the park that night was a preview of what was to come.

Within days, demonstrators in a half-dozen cities targeted Confederate symbols, using spray paint, sledgehammers and, in some cases, their bare hands. Statues that had stood for more than a century suddenly looked like public art graffiti projects.

In Jacksonville, Florida, the city’s mayor ordered the overnight removal of a statue.

Across the country, before the end of June 2020, more than three dozen Confederate displays were taken down by protesters or municipal workers.

In one of the most dramatic episodes, the stone statues of soldiers erected in a historic seaport neighborhood in Portsmouth, Virginia, were defaced with paint, beheaded and set ablaze while protesters cheered and a brass band played.

It was not just memorials in public spots: One removal came in the holiest of places.

In Boise, Idaho, a stained-glass image of Lee, which had soared in the sanctuary of one of the city’s largest churches since the 1960s, was covered with a banner, the words “We Repent” across his image.

Later, the window was replaced with an image of the first African American woman elected as bishop to the United Methodist Church.

And in Mississippi, the lowering of the state’s flag, which featured the Confederate emblem, became the final chapter in a battle dating back decades.

Lawmakers voted to retire the flag, and it was flown for the last time in July 2020, the result of an unexpected union of Black Lives Matter activists, Baptist ministers and conservative business leaders who agreed on the need to move beyond the state’s past.

One way forward, they said, was to replace the flag that had rippled in the wind for 126 years.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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