The U.S. Removed Over 160 Confederate Symbols in 2020—but Hundreds Remain

Following mass protests against racial injustice, watchdog group records new push to remove racist monuments from public spaces

A man in a bright orange construction vest and white hat wraps a thick rope around a paint-splattered statue, of a bearded man wearing a suit and sitting in a chair
A crew in Richmond, Virginia, removes a statue of Confederate naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury on July 2, 2020. John McDonnell / The Washington Post / Getty Images

After a white supremacist massacred nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church in 2015, activists and authorities across the United States launched a renewed push to remove Confederate memorabilia from public and civic centers. More recently, writes Aaron Morrison for the Associated Press (AP), mass protests against racial injustice sparked by a white police officer’s killing of black Minneapolis man George Floyd have prompted similar efforts to revisit public works honoring slaveholders, the Confederacy and other controversial figures.

Thanks in large part to this widespread racial reckoning, 2020 proved to be a record year for removing and replacing traces of the Confederacy. As the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) announced in a statement this week, at least 168 Confederate symbols in public spaces—including statues, institution names, plaques and markers—were removed or renamed last year.

The Montgomery, Alabama–based nonprofit began compiling a running list of Confederate symbols around the country in 2015. The latest statistics represent a year-end update to the SPLC’s Whose Heritage? project, which tracks public Confederate symbols across the United States and, in particular, the American South.

All but one of the 168 removals took place after Floyd’s death in May, report Neil Vigdor and Daniel Victor for the New York Times. Per the report, 94 of the symbols were monuments to Confederate leaders that have since been placed in storage or moved to museums—a divisive issue in and of itself. (For comparison, just 58 Confederate monuments were removed from public view between 2015 and 2019.)

Out of all U.S. states, Virginia removed the most Confederate symbols (71) in 2020. North Carolina removed 24, while Texas and Alabama removed 12 each.

“2020 was a transformative year for the Confederate symbols movement,” says SPLC Chief of Staff Lecia Brooks in the statement. “Over the course of seven months, more symbols of hate were removed from public property than in the preceding four years combined.”

The U.S. Removed Over 160 Confederate Symbols in 2020—but Hundreds Remain
A statue of Confederate States President Jefferson Davis is loaded onto a tow truck after protesters pulled it down in Richmond, Virginia, on June 10, 2020. Parker Michels-Boyce / AFP / Getty Images

Still, the SPLC notes, at least 2,100 Confederate symbols, including 704 monuments, remain standing across the U.S. And, in some states, it may become harder to remove Confederate symbols moving forward: As Rachel Treisman reports for NPR, one investigation found that between May and October 2020, local governments in states such as Florida, Delaware and Arizona took steps to protect at least 28 Confederate monuments.

“In a number of states, it’s just impossible to have a community referendum or even for communities to make their own decisions on this,” Erin L. Thompson, an expert on art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, tells USA Today’s N’dea Yancey-Bragg. “State legislature[s] are trying to make it impossible to take down the monuments really in any other way than violently during [a] protest.”

Confederate symbols have long been associated with the Lost Cause, a racist ideology that suggests the Civil War had little to do with the institution of slavery. In reality, the SPLC noted in its 2019 report, the theory honors “a secessionist government that waged war against the United States to preserve white supremacy and the enslavement of millions of people.”

Many Confederate monuments were erected by white governments during the Jim Crow era as a way to celebrate the history of enslavement and intimidate newly enfranchised African Americans, as Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler explained in a 2018 Smithsonian magazine investigation on the costs of the Confederacy.

In the statement, Brooks says that a reckoning with this painful past is long overdue.

“As witnessed on Jan. 6 when an insurrectionist brazenly carried a Confederate flag through the halls of the U.S. Capitol, Confederate symbols are a form of systemic racism used to intimidate, instill fear, and remind Black people that they have no place in American society,” she adds. “The SPLC firmly believes that all symbols of white supremacy should be removed from public spaces and will continue to support community efforts to remove, rename and relocate them.”