Last year, amid an outpouring of rage and grief over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, a string of monuments honoring the Confederacy came down across the country. Some were removed by city officials; others were toppled by protesters.
Speaking with Fox News last June, then-President Donald Trump spoke out against the push to take these controversial monuments down, saying, “You don’t want to take away our heritage and history and the beauty, in many cases, the beauty, the artistic beauty.”
It’s an argument oft repeated when public tributes to the Confederacy face removal. These monuments, critics say, represent heritage and Southern pride, and taking them down is tantamount to erasing history. But many others view the monuments as symbols of racism and intimidation, honoring an illegitimate entity that sought to preserve the institutions of white supremacy and slavery. After all, proponents of pulling down statues point out, most Confederate monuments were erected decades after the end of the Civil War, at a time when Black Americans’ civil rights were “aggressively under attack,” in the words of FiveThirtyEight’s Ryan Best.
Now, reports Gillian Brockell for the Washington Post, a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences outlines evidence that Confederate monuments are indeed linked to a history of racial violence. Researchers at the University of Virginia (UVA) found that in former Confederate states, counties with higher numbers of Confederate monuments had higher numbers of lynchings between 1832 and 1950—a trend “consistent with the position that Confederate memorializations reflect a racist history, one marred by intentions to terrorize and intimidate Black Americans in response to Black progress,” according to the study.
White mobs committed brutal acts of extrajudicial violence against nearly 2,000 Black Americans during Reconstruction (1865–1876), a tumultuous period following the Civil War during which the country’s laws and Constitution were reworked to grant basic rights to the formerly enslaved. These lynchings were “intended to maintain white supremacy, suppress civil rights, instill fear and terrorize Black people,” the authors write in the study.
The researchers focused their investigation on the areas where the most lynchings took place: the 11 former Confederate states of Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama. They obtained county-level data on lynching from two sources, including an Equal Justice Initiative registry documenting racially motivated killings that took between 1877 and 1950. County-level counts of Confederate memorials came from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Whose Heritage? project, which tracks monuments that have been removed and those that still stand.
Even when controlling for demographic factors like population numbers, the researchers found that “county-level frequency of lynching predicts county-level frequency of Confederate memorializations.” The paper does not make any causal claims, and the researchers “can’t pinpoint exactly the cause and effect,” says co-author Sophie Trawalter, an expert on public policy and psychology at UVA, in a statement.
“But,” Trawalter adds, “the association is clearly there. At a minimum, the data suggests that localities with attitudes and intentions that led to lynchings also had attitudes and intentions associated with the construction of Confederate memorials.”
The findings become even more powerful, the researchers say, when one considers the times and places that the monuments were erected, as well as the contents of speeches given at the memorials’ dedications. As an example, the paper cites a speech delivered by a Confederate veteran at the 1913 dedication ceremony for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Silent Sam monument. He claimed that Confederate soldiers “saved the very life of the Anglo-Saxon race in the South” and stated that he had publicly whipped a Black woman after the conclusion of the Civil War.
Per the paper, the team hopes that its findings, which provide empirical data showing a correlation between Confederate monuments and racial terror killings, will help Americans move on from the debate over controversial statues—and perhaps gain some clarity on how to deal with these public works.
“This kind of [research] is important because it takes a debate that feels like two sides, that feels like two equally valid opinions, and contributes by acknowledging that there are empirical questions at the center of these debates,” first author Kyshia Henderson, a psychologist at UVA, tells Erin O’Hare of Charlottesville Tomorrow. “You don’t have to yield to the position that these symbols are not at all associated with hate. We can—and did—test that empirically.”