Beyond The Battle Flag: Controversy Over Confederate Symbols Unfurls

Jun 25, 2015
Originally published on June 29, 2015 2:14 pm

The Charleston, S.C., shootings have sparked lots of discussion about the Confederate battle flag, but it's not the only symbol of the Confederacy.

Hundreds of Confederate memorials, plazas and markers dot the South — and beyond — and are attracting attention from fresh eyes. Even as far north as Missouri, two memorials have become flash points.

One in Kansas City is 35 to 40 feet tall, topped with a Confederate soldier, with an inscription reading: "In memory of our Confederate dead." It's in a cemetery in a mostly African-American part of town, across the street from a YMCA named for Kansas City's first black mayor, long-time pastor and current U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver.

"I, uh ... I'm, I was stunned because I have never seen it — and I've done burials there," Cleaver says.

Even 150 years since the end of the Civil War, new Confederate memorials have continued to spring up. Darrell Maples, commander for the Missouri division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, helped dedicate one just this past weekend in tiny Rocheport, Mo., near the center of the state.

"It's important that we remember the past," he says. "I think in a world that we're living now, where it seems everything sacred is being attacked in one way or another, remembering those that have went before us and died for a cause that they believed in is sacred."

The Rocheport marker is small, but a looming monument going up near the Texas-Louisiana border. A massive concrete ring held up by pillars, it rises about 20 feet off the ground, just off Interstate 10 and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Orange, Texas.

Paul Jones, who runs the NAACP chapter in nearby Beaumont, sees the monument in a sinister light.

"It's glorifying, to me, white supremacy — and the institution of slavery," he says.

But Marshal Davis, spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans group in Texas, says it's simply intended to venerate a cause that hundreds of thousands of Americans fought and died for. He does concede, though, that they are controversial.

"Oh yes, I completely agree that our symbols are under a new scrutiny — based on the actions of one madman," he says.

Madman or not, there's an intense disagreement here.

Since the Charleston shootings, Confederate monuments have themselves become targets: Vandals have hit them in Charleston, Baltimore and, just Wednesday, in St. Louis, where a 32-foot-tall memorial was defaced with red paint.

Eddie Roth, St. Louis' human services director, reads from the monument's glowing inscription: "The sublime self-sacrifice in the battle to preserve the independence of the states ... and they performed deeds of prowess such as thrill the heart of mankind with admiration."

There's only one problem with the text, according to Roth: "It really is a monument to a myth" — one in which the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery.

Rep. Cleaver says that alleged Charleston shooter Dylann Roof may have done something he didn't count on.

"His act of pure, undistilled hate has caused something to we have not seen in a quarter of a century," he says: a candid conversation about race, hostility and the shifting meanings of historic symbols.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay had begun talking about moving the vandalized memorial months before the Charleston shooting, and it's possible the current scrutiny will help push that along.

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Dylann Roof, the man accused of killing black churchgoers in Charleston, used the Confederate battle flag as a banner of white supremacy, which has led to pressure to remove that flag as an official emblem across the South, but the flag is not the only controversial symbol of the Confederacy. As Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, Confederate monuments are getting a fresh look.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Across the country, there are hundreds of monuments to the Confederacy, and they're not all in the South. I'm standing at the base of one here in Kansas City. It's maybe 35, 40 feet tall. It's got a Confederate soldier on the top and it says, in memory of our Confederate war dead at the base. It's in a cemetery, in a mostly African-American part of the city that's across the street from a YMCA named for the city's first black mayor, longtime pastor and current Congressman Emanuel Cleaver.

EMANUEL CLEAVER: I was stunned because I had never seen it, and I've done burials there.

MORRIS: And 150 years after the Civil War, Confederate memorials keep springing up.

DARRELL MAPLES: It's important that we remember the past. It's important to do things like this.

MORRIS: Darrell Maples, state commander for the Missouri division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, helped dedicate one in tiny Rocheport, Mo., just last weekend.

MAPLES: I think in a world that we're living in now, where it seems that everything sacred is being attacked in way or another, remembering those that have lived before us and died for a cause that they believed in is sacred.

MORRIS: We're talking about a small marker here, but a looming monument being built in Texas rises about 20 feet off the ground, a massive concrete ring held up by pillars, just off Interstate 10 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive.

MARSHALL DAVIS: I know this is a large memorial. Yeah, I would say it is one of the largest.

MORRIS: Marshall Davis, with the Sons of Confederate Veterans group in Texas, says monuments like this simply venerate a cause that hundreds of thousands of Americans fought and died for, though he concedes, it's controversial.

DAVIS: Oh, yes, I completely agree that our symbols are under a new scrutiny based on the actions of one madman.

MORRIS: Madman or not, there's a fundamental disagreement here. Paul Jones runs the NAACP chapter in nearby Beaumont, Texas, and he sees the monument in a more sinister light.

PAUL JONES: It's glorifying - to me - white supremacy and the institution of slavery.

MORRIS: Since the Charleston shootings, Confederate monuments have themselves become targets. Vandals have hit them in Charleston, Baltimore and, just yesterday, St. Louis.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The entire memorial was covered in red paint. You see, the workers are trying to power wash that red paint off of the statue figurines there.

MORRIS: They're cleaning a 32-foot granite shaft, one inscribed with a glowing tribute to the Confederacy.

EDDIE ROTH: The sublime self-sacrifice, and they battled to preserve the independence of the states...

MORRIS: Eddie Roth, St. Louis's human services director, is reading from the inscription.

ROTH: ...And they performed deeds of prowess, such as thrill the heart of mankind with admiration.

MORRIS: Only one problem, according to Roth.

ROTH: It really is a monument to a myth.

MORRIS: One where the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay started talking about moving the memorial months ago. And Congressman Cleaver says accused shooter Dylann Roof may have done something he didn't count on.

CLEAVER: His act of pure undistilled hate has caused something to happen that we have not seen in a quarter of a century.

MORRIS: A candid conversation about race, hostility and the shifting meanings of historic symbols. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.