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On Contact: Public monuments & racism with Professor James W Loewen

On the show this week, Chris Hedges, in his second interview with Professor James W Loewen, discusses public monuments and statues, who puts them up and why, and what may replace them. Prof Loewen is the author of ‘Lies Across America: What Our Historical Markers and Monuments Get Wrong’.

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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, in our--the second part of our discussion with Professor James Loewen, we talk about public monuments and statues, what they represent, who put them up, and why.

James W Loewen: We descend into white supremacy period.  Black folks have no allies and we become more racist in our ideology, in our thinking than at any other time.  And that's when most of these confederate statues go up.  They don't go up after the Civil War and they aren't really mourning the dead.  What they are doing is they're proclaiming our power and that's why they go up at state capitals.  They go up in front of courthouses.  They go up in very important locations in downtown.  They don't go up at the--at the cemeteries, they already did those if they're going to do them.  So those statues are statements of white supremacy and they are also statements that we were right.  And in a sense, they were in a sense that they won the Civil War after 1890.  They didn't win it on the ground but they won the principles for which it was fought, which was white supremacy, not expressed by slavery anymore but by the next best thing, by servitude, by segregation, by sharecropping.

CH: The uprisings sweeping the nation triggered by the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others have not confronted systematic police abuse but targeted statues, monuments, and buildings commemorating white supremacy.  The headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy which spearheaded the erection of monuments to confederate leaders in the early part of the 20th century in Richmond, Virginia was set on fire.  The statue of newspaper editor Edward Carmack, a supporter of lynching, who urged whites to kill the African-American journalist Ida B. Wells for her investigations into lynching was ripped down.  Statues of the confederate generals, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, along with the statue of the racist former mayor and police chief of Philadelphia Frank Rizzo have been removed under pressure by city and state officials.  Princeton University, which had long resisted calls to remove Woodrow Wilson's name from its school of public policy because of his virulent racism finally relented.  Those who target these monuments are acutely aware of the long continuum that links America's racist past with the lethal police, violence that disproportionately targets African-Americans.  Collective remembrance is a tool used by the ruling elites to justify, even sanctify their grip on power, perpetuate the crimes of white supremacy, and induce a historical amnesia that erases the struggles and heroism of those who fight the elites for justice and dignity.  These monuments are not neutral.  They shape how we view ourselves and our nation.  They justify the crimes of the past to justify the crimes of the present.  Joining me to discuss the efforts to reshape the commemoration of our history is Professor James Loewen, the author of "Lies Across America: What Our Historical Markers and Monuments Get Wrong."  So, Jim, at the end of your book, you actually call for--you have a list of monuments and statues that you think should be torn down.  And I just want to point out that when you wrote it, this was considered an outrageous idea.  And now, of course, we are watching in cities around the country, this process talking--taking place.  So tell me a little bit about why, we had discussed in the first part, your book about the teaching of history, why you decided to focus on these public memorials, why they're important, why they were put up, who put them up.  Give us a little history.

JL: Well, let me say that in my best seller, "Lies My Teacher Told Me," I pretty much proved I think, certainly I think, I proved that history is usually taught badly in high school, especially by teachers who just teach the textbook which is all too many of them.  So--and statistics bear this out on measure after measure Americans don't do well in almost any school subject but they do worse in history, worse than in any other field.  Also history is the least liked subject in high school so students not only don't do well and that they know they don't like it, but they're still interested in the past.  So what do they do about it?  Well, they don't take history in college because first of all, over half of us still don't go to college.  And second of all, when we go to college, we don't wanna take history.  We know how boring that is.  Now college history is often not boring at all but we don't give it a shot.  So where do we learn about the past?  Well, my dad stopped the family car at every darn historical marker when we were out on vacations.  And I live in Washington DC and I see all kinds of people on vacation here before the virus, going to the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, the--all of the Smithsonian museums and similar museums all across the country and monuments and so on.  So we learn it on the landscape, if you will.  Well, unfortunately, as "Lies Across America" hopefully proved, oftentimes we're learning mythology there, too.  We're learning what I call BS which is bad sociology.  It's just astounding some of the--some of the things we learn.  Let me--let me pick on the very worst historical marker in the United States, I think, because it's such a funny story.  And it's one of the most beautiful historical markers.  It is a piece of slate in Idaho and it's carved into the shape of the State of Idaho which is not easy for--to do that with a, you know, we're not talking Wyoming here.  And so what does it say?  Well, it tells about a most horrible Indian massacre in Almo, Idaho.  Three hundred immigrants in their little wagon train killed, only five escaped.  Well, it turns out that if you do a whole lot of research on this, and luckily for me somebody else did and I'm piggybacking on his excellent work, he died recently, but he spent 10 years on this subject, he proved that 300 immigrants in their wagon train were not killed by savage Indians in Southern Idaho.  Thirty were not, three were not--it never happened at all.  And it's not easy to prove a negative, but he proves it.  So the state--the Historical Society of Idaho wants Almo to take down this completely fallacious historical marker that went up in 1937.  They won't take it down because it's the biggest thing that ever happened in Almo even though it never happened.  All right?  That's pretty funny, but that marker--and this is an important point I wanna make, that marker does tell you something about 1937 when it went up.

CH: Well, these markers become a justification for that racism in essence, don't they?

JL: Yeah.  It's a circular process and it's even worse than that that.  The silliest one of all in that regard is there is still a confederate memorial at Arlington, Arlington National Cemetery. And the question, why would there be?  I mean, after all they were the ones on the wrong side.  All of the union people buried at Arlington were killed by those people on the other side but this is--part of the nadir of race relations, it was this compact in which we joined back in with the white southern elite between 1890 and 1940.  So this goes up at about 1915.  And it has a bas relief around the bottom of it and in that bas relief, there's two black figures.  There's a mammy figure, and this shows, of course, that black folks really liked slavery and they were--they were very important to us, us white people, and they were treated well.  And then there's a black male who is actually a--what we would call a body servant or a body slave to an officer in a confederate army.  But people have subsequently made him into a black confederate, which he isn't.  And they lied about him and say--and said since he's there as a black confederate, there must have really been black confederates.  And since there were black confederates in the army therefore we couldn't possibly have seceded for slavery because black folks would never be fighting to enslave themselves.  So, therefore it must not have been about slavery, it must have been about state's rights.  So that's arguing from the statue.  The statue that was put up in 1913, I think, has nothing to do with the civil war.

CH: Well, that whole drive by the United Daughters of the Confederates in I think 1800, confederate statues, you actually write about some being put up in Montana which wasn't even a state, it had nothing to do with the civil war.  So--and of course they pick--they pick those figures who were stalwarts of the confederate cause, ignoring like General James Longstreet, major figure in the confederacy who supported reconstruction, actually fought white supremacists I believe in New Orleans.  But this--I think it has had very dire repercussions in terms of the rise of neo-confederacy under the Trump administration.  And that whole process is kind of fascinating because it was very carefully calibrated to ignore historical figures, particularly African-American figures during reconstruction, African-American resistance fighters, African-American intellectuals as well as whites who supported the abolition of slavery and fought against the confederacy even within the south.  And we're feeling, I think, the reverberations of that today.  So tell us a little bit about what happened, that whole process, which you said began in 1890 in terms of public monuments.

JL: Three things happened at the end of 1890 that really messed us up in race relations.  One used to be called the Battle of Wounded Knee.  It's now more accurately being called The Massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota where many people lose the last shards of their independence.  The second was the passing of the Mississippi constitution of 1890.  Now there was nothing whatever wrong with their constitution of 1868 except it let blacks vote, it let blacks run for office, they could be citizens, they could do all kinds of things.  In 1890, they decided we've had enough of that.  And so they were clear about passing a constitution that kept them from voting primarily by the "interpret the state constitution" clause to the success--to the satisfaction of the local white registrar.  Well, everybody knew they were open about why they were doing it and so it was a direct defiance thing with regard to the 14th and 15th amendments, but the United States did nothing about it.  Seeing that, every other southern state and states as far away so Oklahoma followed suit by 1907.  And the third thing that happened was the United States senate failed to pass more or less by one vote the Voting Rights Act of that year called the Federal Elections Act after the federal government did nothing about the Mississippi constitution.  Other southern states, all of them and even states as far away as Oklahoma, followed suit by 1907.  So we descend into white supremacy period.  Black folks have no allies and we become more racist in our ideology, in our thinking than at any other time.  And that's when most of these confederate statues go up.  They don't go up after the civil war and they aren't really mourning the dead.  What they are doing is they're proclaiming our power and that's why they go up at state capitals, they go up in front of court houses, they go up in very important locations in downtown.  They don't go up at the--at the cemeteries, they already did those if they're going to do them.  So those statues are statements of white supremacy and they're also statements that we were right.  And in a sense--they were in a sense that they won the Civil War after 1890.  They didn't win it on the ground but they won the principles for which it was fought, which was white supremacy, not expressed by slavery anymore but they the next best thing, by servitude, by segregation, by sharecropping.

CH: When we come back, we will continue this conversation with Professor James Loewen on public monuments.  Welcome back On Contact.  We continue our conversation with Professor James Loewen about public monuments and memorials and what they represent.  So, before the brake, we were talking about the United Daughters of Confederacy, confederate memorials.  And part of this process, which you point out in the book, is rewriting the history of reconstruction which becomes very important in terms of taking away the history of African Americans.  Talk about that process.  It's quite pernicious.

JL: Yeah.  It was actually a reconstruction moment that got me so interested in history in the first place because after all, I'm a sociologist.  How come I'm so interested in arguing about what happened in 1867 or 1868?  Well, I was teaching--my first full time teaching job was at Tougaloo College in Mississippi.   Tougaloo College is a black college.  It has white students.  It had about three out of five hundred and fifty or so when I first started teaching there.  So, I was teaching the courses in sociology, I expected to be teaching.  But I was also assigned to teach one section of a course called the Freshmen Social Science Seminar.  This was a good course.  It introduced students to sociology, psychology, anthro, you know the drill, poli science, and it did this in the context of African American history.  Made sense, all of us being--99% of our students being African American.  Second semester in such a course begins after Christmas, yes, but it also begins after the Civil War with the period of reconstruction that you just mentioned.  So, I didn't want to do all the talking that first day, I had 17 students new to me.  I wanted to hear from them.  So, I said, "Okay.  What is reconstruction?  What comes to your mind about that period?"  And 16 of my 17 students told me, "Reconstruction was the period right after the Civil War when blacks took over the government of the Southern States.  But they were too soon out of slavery and so they screwed up and white folks had to take control again."  Now there's at least three direct lies in that sentence, but white folks never--black folks never took over the government of the Southern States, all of the Southern States had black governors throughout reconstruction.  All but one had white--black legislating majorities as well.  Second of all, the reconstruction governments did not screw up.  Mississippi in particular had better government during reconstruction than at any later point in the century.  And so third, white folks didn't take control at the end, a certain group of white folks, white racist democrats under the guise of the Ku Klux Klan, they took control.  So, I thought to myself, "My gosh, what must I do to you to believe that there one time, your group was center stage in American history, they screwed up."  And then there's the concept too soon out of slavery.  Now there's a concept to think about.  So, it was--it's terrible what that misconception of reconstruction does to black people.  But I said maybe it's at least to spare what it does to white people because if I'm--if I'm a white 18-year-old Mississippian and I just graduated from high school and I'm dealing with all the turmoil about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the issues of the Civil Rights Movement, I don't want black people to vote because they messed up last time they got the right to vote.  It's not even white folk's fault that they're a bunch of racist.  With that kind of history being taught they have no alternative.  So, I thought we have to change how we're teaching about the past.

CH: Another point you make in the book is that when you have conflicts between oppressed people, let's say labor or anyone else, monuments go up that deify or sanctify the oppressors, Haymarket being a good example.  Can you talk about that example and what it represents?

JL: Haymarket is the funniest of all that's why I broke out laughing.

CH: But you should--you should, for listeners, tell what happened at Haymarket first.

JL: Yeah, yeah.  Haymarket was a--it was a terrible event actually, there were continued strikes and labor rallies in Chicago on behalf of the eight hour day, which is interesting because [INDISTINCT] had recently passed a law require the eight-hour day but nobody was following it.  And so these strikes were going on at McCormick Reaper in particular and there was a very big one that was going on in Haymarket Square.  But a light rain started falling and so people drifted away and it becomes twilight.  And the mayor comes by and he sees that it's peaceful and he leaves.  And about then, the police get an order to clear the square, kind of like what just happened at Lafayette Square outside the White House maybe in a way.  It was peaceful and then the police come in.  Well, anyway--and so they--there's a big burly Irish American policeman, puts his hand up apparently certainly, his picture just ran.  I think he did do it and said, "In the name of the people of Illinois, I command you disperse."  No, "I command peace."  And just at that point, somebody throws a bomb.  I actually think that it was one of the anarchist type people associated with the labor movement.  The police opened fire and they hit some of themselves in the crossfire and they hit--they killed at least seven labor protesters and at least seven policemen died.  So, they put up a monument to this--that in Haymarket Square and it is of a--of a policeman with his hand up and it says around the base, "In the name of the people of Illinoi I command peace."  And he's got his hand up.  Well, this didn't do too well with labor, they said, "Look, we lost seven of our people there, too, and they were not allowed to put anything in the City of Chicago.  They did put up a beautiful monument just outside the city in the Waldheim or Woods Cemetery outside in a--in a suburb and that's where a lot of labor organizers are buried to this day.  Well, anyway, so the--bad things started happening to the statue with--to the--to the monument, it gets--it gets toppled, it gets put back up.  Finally, at one point, they put it in a park where it will be safer, they think.  And then a trolley operator on the anniversary of the event, somehow gets his trolley to go off the track, on a curve I guess, and hit it and it topples it again and somehow he didn't even get arrested even though it's pretty clear he did it on purpose because when he was interviewed afterward, he said, "I just got so tired of him with his damn hand up."  But anyway, and then during--so, they--then put it back up and the weatherman, the weather underground in the civil rights movement or in the black power whatever movement you want to call it, anti-Vietnam war movement and so on, they toppled it twice, okay?  And in between those two topplings, the police maintained a twenty-four hour, seven day a week watch around the statue, which must've been the most boring thing a policeman can do possibly for a--for an eight-hour shift.  Finally, they took it down themselves, they put it in the police headquarters and then they realized they might get--they might get attacked by--with a mail bomb or something.  So, they weren't safe.  So, they took it out of there and they put it in another place which is surrounded by the police training academy but it is outdoors.  And I--and I got to see it there, I even took a picture of it there.  But I had to point out to them it was still vulnerable to a helicopter attack, and I'm not sure exactly where it is right now.  Well, this is kind of like statue wars, right?  And to their credit, there is just now a--or recently, a new kind of a work of art, public art, public thing telling the other side, too, at Haymarket Square.

CH: But this is not uncommon.  You have another example of the America--statue to American legionnaires who went in and attacked Wobblies.

JL: Yeah, yeah, they sure did.  And they're trying--rather than tell that story, that's in Centralia, Washington.  Rather than tell that story, they have converted it into a World War I statue, has nothing to do with World War I although it did happen while World War I was going on.  So, anyway, we--let me say one thing about working class statutes, the working class sometimes gets statue equality because working class people do know how to put up statues, especially granite workers do.  And so there's a really good granite workers statue in Barre, Vermont for instance.  There's a pretty good fireman statue in the Springfield, Illinois.  So, you know, we're making some progress in the--in the--in the working class, upper class issue with regard to the statues.  Well, we're making some progress, are we not, with regard to confederate statues and racist statues?  I mean, the last two months have been the happiest months of my life in some ways.  I mean, just all these statue--people looked at me as if I was crazy when I suggested just as recently as three years ago in Richmond, Virginia that ultimately all of the statues on Monument Avenue will be coming down.  Well, now they've all come down except one and it's on the way down.  So, we are making some progress and that is good.  It does--no, it doesn't solve the problems of America, but at least it does say we no longer adore and revere these people up there because they exemplify white supremacy.  We at least don't do that anymore.

CH: Well, Nathan Bedford Forrest who was not only one of the wealthiest slave traders, used convict leasing after the war, massacred black soldiers at Fort Pillow including taking them and crucifying them on tent poles, his statues are ubiquitous.

JL: Yeah.  They're under--they're under attack now though, he's coming down.  So, yeah, you're right.  I…

CH: You visit some of the houses--I found this hilarious, you visit Buchanan, President Buchanan's house, our first gay president, he was in the closet but we know from his correspondence that he was gay.  Just talk about because it was just a kind of microcosm of how they distort history.  So, you go into the house, I'll let you tell story.

JL: Yeah.  Okay.  My--I got my son to go with me and there were--there was a couple, male and female, that were also visiting.  It's not visited very much because he was, after all, our second worst or third worst president, I think third worst.  But anyway, get some visit.  And so it has a small staff and in this case we were being shown around by the head of the staff.  And I don't ask much questions until the end of the tour because I want to see what the average tourist gets.  And if you ask a couple of questions, you're going to get a very different tour because they're going to know you know something.  So, we get--we first of all see the video, the video says almost nothing about his politics.  The very first statement that the tour guide says to us is, "Well, you're not here to talk politics, you're here to see the house."  But that's not true.  There are better houses in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  We're here because he--of the politics, because he was the last president of the United States before the Civil War and we want to see what they say about all of that so it's just not true.  Well, at the end of the tour, I ask the shortest question I've ever heard anybody ask, I counted out the letters and I think--I think there's eight of them, I said, "Was he gay?"  And the guy said, "The answer is absolutely not."  And he takes us up the central staircase one more time and he shows us this oval portrait of his betroth, of this woman to whom he was engaged for several months when he was in his 20s and this proves he was not gay.  Well, the only problem with that is she broke off the engagement because in the words of her girlfriend, he could not seem to bring--to get to her property affection.  But this proves he was not gay, see?  Then I asked one other question, I said, "How was he on slavery?"  And the reply was, and I'm quoting him exactly, "He was against it, all the people in this area were."  Well, he's right about the area, the area was full of Quakers and full of Mennonites.  It still is and those are the first two groups to come out against slavery in the Western world.  But Buchanan was so pro-slavery primarily because his longtime lover was a plantation owner and senator from South--I mean, from Alabama.  So, the two lies are absolutely interwoven and when you leave the tour, you are stupider about Buchanan than if you had never taken the tour.

CH: Great.  Thanks.  That was Professor James Loewen talking about his book, "Lies Across America."  All right.  Thank you very much.

JL: Okay.  Thanks for having me on.

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