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Combating ‘Lost Cause’ iconography during Confederate Heritage Month and beyond

As some states continue to perpetuate “Lost Cause” mythology with observances throughout April, which is sometimes recognized as Confederate Heritage Month, it’s worth looking at the monuments and memorials to the Confederacy that fill public spaces and celebrate the myth year-round.

Confederate memorials in all forms – the battle flag, monuments, names of schools, government buildings, streets and highways – are living symbols of white supremacy despite the false “Lost Cause” narrative casting the Confederacy as something noble. Over 2,000 Confederate symbols currently litter public spaces, glorifying one of the most cruel and inhumane chapters of U.S. history, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Whose Heritage? project documenting these symbols.

As long as Confederate iconography remains on public land, our country’s dehumanization of Black people continues. The SPLC has been proud to work with activists seeking to remove these symbols. Here are some strategies from our guide to help activists.

Research the symbol

Learn the symbol’s history and why the community chose to create this monument or memorial. Find out when it was first displayed. Many Confederate symbols began appearing after the U.S. Supreme Court’s school desegregation ruling in 1954 and into the 1960s to protest the Civil Rights Movement. Build your case against the symbol by pairing our Whose Heritage? report with information from reputable online resources, the library and state archives.

For example, when Duval County, Florida, renamed six public schools honoring Confederate leaders, the community rallied behind activists’ research, which showed four of those names were chosen to protest school desegregation. The notion that promoting white superiority and Black inferiority would further dehumanize Black students resonated with parents and allies.

Raise awareness

Policymakers may be hesitant to remove the symbol if they believe there is no public demand or that it will anger constituents. Demonstrating public support for removal can overcome this obstacle. Identify and network with community groups and leaders who share your interest. Write an op-ed or letter to the editor. Invite the press to your group’s meeting to learn more. Generate interest via social media, online petitions, host a rally or educational event. Reimagine the cause through the work of social justice artists who can amplify your message.

Hold elected officials accountable

Lawmakers who refuse to remove Confederate memorials from public property are on the wrong side of history. You may have to appeal to more than one governmental body to see results. Using your research, write lawmakers and ask for meetings to discuss the issue. Consistently attend meetings where decisions are made and sign up to provide public comment to raise awareness at hearings. Encourage allies to do the same. Advocates should rotate appeals at public hearings to avoid burnout.

Understand that change won’t happen overnight

Advocating against Confederate symbols requires time and patience. It’s encouraging that since 2015, the SPLC has documented the removal of more than 480 such symbols across the country. However, removing the more than 2,000 remaining symbols won’t happen overnight.

And too often it has taken tragic, racist violence claiming lives to spark even a momentary reevaluation of Confederate symbols in public spaces. Consider, for example, the lives lost in Charleston, South Carolina, to a racist attack on a church in 2015, the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017 and the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020. Clearly, self-care is a necessity for activists and communities as they strive to remove these symbols.

Together, we must persevere as we challenge these monuments to white supremacy. And together, we can reclaim whose heritage is celebrated.

Kimberly Allen is a senior media strategist for the SPLC.

In a photo from Sept. 8, 2021, workers in Richmond, Virginia, prepare a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee for removal. The statue was erected in 1890. (Credit: Ken Cedeno/UPI/Alamy Live News)