Home Race How Northam Might Handle the Confederate Monuments Issue

How Northam Might Handle the Confederate Monuments Issue


Yesterday, in a series of comments on my own piece on “The Republicans’ Smart Move on the White Supremacy Issue,” which focused on the issue of the Confederate monuments, I did some thinking-out-loud about the role that issue might play in the Virginia governor’s race.

It’s an issue that could pose a danger to Ralph Northam, and thus one that needs to be either avoided, or dealt with adeptly and creatively.

So I’ve taken those rough comments, deleting them from that original thread, and worked them into a better presentation. Here it is:


Thinking out loud about how this Monument issue relates to the upcoming election for Governor of Virginia.

I got that information that 62% of Americans support the position that Gillespie’s taking from an article from NBC news that Lowell linked to in yesterday’s news: The title of the article indicated that the Monuments issue was somehow framing the 2017 Virginia elections. The article’s title was “Virginia Campaign Shaping Up as a Referendum on Confederate Monuments.”

I don’t know how much there is to that assessment, but however prominent the monuments issue becomes, it will need to be handled adeptly.

A way needs to be found to prevent Gillespie from tapping successfully into some deep springs that have been instilled in many Southern white voters — people whose culture has taught powerfully for generations the importance of solidarity where racial status –under the guise of honoring Southern “heritage” — is on the line.

Strong loyalties of that kind are readily summoned up from the deep. That’s long been the work of demagogues who know how to exploit that historical set of traumas and rages. Such demagogues – like Trump right now – can skillfully play on the forces of darkness.

Gillespie will employ those forces in a far more refined way than Trump does. But it will still be darkness he plays with– encouraging white voters to vote to defend the “heritage,” while obscuring that this “heritage” has had white supremacy at its core.

Northam’s campaign should give thought on how to overcome the force of that subtle and dark appeal.  He will be helped the more the public understands what this is really all about. Part of the challenge will be to find a creative way of dealing with the monuments that minimizes the conflict over race that has lately been raising its ugly head more in America.

A historian who appeared yesterday on MSNBC said something that could be helpful here. He made a distinction that might be important. It would address the opinion of that 62% of the public that wants the monuments kept as “historic symbols.”

The issue, this historian said, is not whether we keep hold of our history. The issue, rather, is what in our history we choose to HONOR.

The history is important, and should indeed be preserved: put them into a museum setting, which is suitable for conveying to people what the history has been.

But these monuments were erected  –and continue in their present form — to HONOR the Confederacy through the image of warriors who fought to preserve slavery. That was the South’s cause, and that’s not something we should continue to honor.

(It was to preserve slavery — which is about WHITE SUPREMACY — that the states of the Confederacy chose to break up the United States to defend– even though it was under no imminent threat as an institution, the question being only whether its empire could be expanded.)

If I were Northam, I’d try to minimize the role of this issue in the election. But to the extent that this issue must be fought out, I’d compose a diplomatic way of helping voters to grasp that the monuments have always embodied a message of WHITE SUPREMACY.

In other words, I would tie it back to Charlottesville. Very gently. History tells us that the monuments are a more beautiful way of making some of the same supremacist assertions that were done in such an ugly way by the KKK and the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.


The message about the monuments should be framed not in terms of their repudiation, but in terms of redefining their place in the surrounding society. Changing their status.

The message should be that Virginia now stands for a society of a different sort from the kind for which the Confederacy fought.

Which opens up a positive direction a candidate for governor might take:

“It’s time to come up with new images that capture what we stand for — a society in which equality is honored, difference is appreciated, and groups deal with each other with mutual respect and consideration.”

Perhaps Northam — modeling how he would be as “our next governor” — could throw out a creative challenge to Virginians: “Tell us — better still, show us — what statuary would be appropriate for a Virginia that has moved beyond the social order represented by the old statuary.”

Turn the issue toward a vision of the future. The new statues would represent pieces of the state’s “mission statement.” An expression of the ideals behind the best of Virginia, the kind of society we aspire to be.

Warriors might still have a place, but also other images of our ideals: maybe a mother holding a child, or a giant bust of Thomas Jefferson. Maybe something that does for Jefferson like what that newish FDR monument in Washington does for him.

Jefferson and Washington were, like Lee, gentlemen embodying important virtues produced by the Virginia aristocracy. All of them slaveholders. But unlike Lee – whose place in history was earned essentially by his role in fighting for slavery—Jefferson and Washington are honored despite their connection to slavery.

Jefferson and Washington are honored for how they created, served, and expressed the ideals of American democracy. Honoring the words and deeds that contributed to the American ideal is certainly a direction a new set of monuments might take.

Celebrating the nation — the United States of America — that these great Virginians did such a good job to define and to shape. Celebrating the nation that the “heroes” of the Confederacy are famous only for their heroic efforts to break apart.


I just read something that talked about the danger to the Democrats if some of their anti-fascist allies (vigilantes was the word used) were to vandalize the Confederate monuments.

I don’t think even good leadership can restrain some people who might seize the opportunity for such destructive acts, but I believe there’s a way that Democrats can minimize the danger.

My pessimism about prevention derives from my experience from when I lived in Berkeley, CA (1968-1973– except for one year). In that era, I recall being in protests against the war in Vietnam, and I recall also there was also an element you wish were not on your side– the kind who would throw a rock through a Bank of America window.

My sense was that this kind of person is not really being political. Such people, rather, are using the situation as an opportunity to act out something angry in themselves.

So what I think the Democrats should do is to get out in front of the issue. Call explicitly for a process of working this through which involves no violence, like we saw in Charlottesville, and involves no abusive speech toward other groups.

Democratic leaders should loudly declare that these statues should continue to be treated with respect. No one should damage or deface what we hope will have a prominent place in some Virginia museum in the future.

Then if something happens, the position of the Democrats will be publicly on the side that called for respect and a good non-violent process; and they won’t be tied to vandals simply because they were against maintaining the monuments’ status quo.


  • Rational Lefty

    I think that the terms “Confederate Monuments” or “Confederate Statues” are too broad.

    There are statues of leaders and generals, portraying them as heroic. Most of them were put up during the resurgence of the KKK at the start of the 20th Century or during the backlash against civil rights in the 1950’s and 60’s.

    But there are also monuments to the Civil War dead – mostly anonymous men who didn’t own slaves, and who were just as much victims of the slaveholding elite who convinced them to march off to war, to defend their “sovereign state” against the Northern aggressors. Commemorating them commemorates the great tragedy that this “brother against brother” war was. Keep them, add some contextual information, but don’t put their memorials into the same category as statues glorifying Lee and Jackson.

  • Cheryl Washer

    I like your phrasing about “It is time to come up with new images …” . I had an interesting conversation with some conservative cousins about how Virginia and other Southern states need to not forget but to stop having the Civil War as their sole defining characteristic. Ended up, the cousins agreed with me and didn’t cut me off. There are other, inclusive, better things to celebrate and honor about the South.

    I’d rather hear leadership from Northam as to that he wants to honor the expanded history of Virginia and that it is important to clarify that our public spaces, government and justice system are equal for all. That’s it — specifics about specific statues aren’t necessary.

    And if he is pushed for specifics, he has professionals EMPLOYED by the state to work this out with public input — I’m somewhat disappointed that Richmond seems to have abandoned its Commission on Monument Avenue. There are historians all over the state. Let them do their jobs and give us the context we need.

  • Dr. C W Blankenship

    I am a retired history professor. I taught American military history for more years than I want to remember. I like the approach of Senator Kaine – “Virginia is over 300 years old and we seem to emphasize the four years of the the Confederacy. Why not look at all of Virginia history and give other notables their day in the sun. Interesting that the one figure on Monument Ave. that is not a Virginian is Jeff Davis. I say he is the first to go.

    I also find it interesting that Lee did not want any monuments least of all to himself so Why are we disrespecting his wishes?