The Georgia Monument at the Chickamauga portion of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park features an obelisk with a Confederate soldier at its top.

The Georgia Monument at the Chickamauga portion of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park features an obelisk with a Confederate soldier at its top.

Credit: Library of Congress

The Georgia Monument at the Chickamauga portion of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park features an obelisk with a Confederate soldier at its top.

Near Andersonville, a monument stands to honor Henry Wirz, commandant of the stockade of Camp Sumter, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp where inhumane conditions led to a high mortality rate and the post-war execution of Wirz.

And at Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield Park, a tribute to the 14 Georgian generals who led forces there includes a marker that says: “Success of an army is but a reflection of the skill, leadership, courage and inspiration of its generals.”

The push for the federal government to get rid of Confederate statues and memorials in national parks is a new campaign that is gaining some traction this year as opposition to the public display of Confederate symbols grows.

Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum, who leads the House subcommittee that oversees spending for the Interior Department, included language in the agency’s fiscal 2021 spending bill that would require the National Park Service to remove from public view all Confederate statues, monuments and plaques.

If passed into law, the requirement could be a monumental task for parks officials. The agency does not have a register of all of its Confederate commemorative works. But at Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pa., alone, there are more than 1,300 monuments, markers and plaques that commemorate those who fought and died there.

The bill language is a victory for McCollum, who has been working on this issue for years. She made a similar attempt five years ago to block the sale of Confederate flags in national parks. That effort ultimately failed, though the Department of Veterans Affairs later moved to bar Confederate flag imagery from flagpoles at national cemeteries on Memorial Day or Confederate Memorial Day.

The House approved the measure in July, as part of a wide-ranging spending bill called a “mini-bus” because it includes four different spending bills to fund the Interior, State, Veterans Affairs and Agriculture departments. It passed on a party-line vote without any debate of the Confederate monuments issue.

The White House, however, in its Statement of Administration Policy on the measure said it “strongly objects” to the Confederate monuments language, calling it a “drive to edit history.”

McCollum, who represents St. Paul, has served in Congress for 19 years but was a high school social studies teacher before she began her career in politics. She says that growing up during the civil rights movement and her time spent teaching social studies shaped her views and made this an important issue for her.

Protests across the country since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd have highlighted racial injustice and police brutality, and some protesters toppled monuments.  President Donald Trump has remained resolute in his support of monuments and memorials. An executive order in June called for protection of monuments and prosecution of anyone who defaces them.

Not only have some of Georgia’s confederate monuments that dot courthouse squares and other public areas been damaged, some local officials have argued that they should be removed for safety reasons, as happened in Athens earlier this year after a protest sparked by Floyd’s death.

But while controversy over Confederate memorials swirled over the Stone Mountain carving, the state Capitol’s tribute to John Brown Gordon and other tributes on property controlled by Georgia officials, efforts to remove statues and other Confederate honors are increasingly coming from Washington.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for the removal of Confederate busts from the National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol earlier this year, including Georgia’s Alexander Stephens who was a high-ranking Confederate officer. And a defense policy bill in the U.S. Senate would strip the Confederate officers’ names from 10 military bases, including Fort Gordon near Augusta and Fort Benning next to Columbus.

For the national parks provision to make it into law, it will have to survive negotiations with the Senate. In 2015, a group of Republicans threatened to oppose the entire Interior Department spending bill if it included a Confederate flag amendment — leading to the removal of the rider. But McCollum says times have changed and that she has not yet heard from any colleagues who object to the provision.

“I am going to go into negotiations with the Senate and going to defend the language, and I daresay the United States Senate should not want the National Park Service or public lands to be used in a way that promotes the legacy of racial discrimination and hate, that causes intimidation and fear with our fellow citizens,” McCollum said.

The Senate has not moved on any of its individual spending bills. Lawmakers will likely work on a stopgap “continuing resolution” this month, before current funding expires Oct. 1.

‘A moment of reckoning’

The first Confederate memorials were erected in cemeteries and communities after the Civil War, many of them as a replacement gravestones for soldiers who never came home.

But by the late 19th century, local and federal authorities in the Jim Crow South started to commission monuments in town squares and public meeting places. Those monuments, with triumphant Roman architecture, reinforced a “Lost Cause” mythology of heroism of the Confederate cause, according to Sarah Beetham, an art history professor who has studied and published literature on Confederate monuments.

Even more Confederate monuments were erected during the 1960s, when the centennial of the Civil War coincided with the civil rights movement.

“Many of them were very much supporting a white supremacist message,” said Beetham, an assistant professor and chair of liberal arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

This summer has seen a growing push in Congress and across the United States to re-examine and remove some of those monuments.

“Really this is a moment of reckoning that has caused people to challenge their long held beliefs and disbeliefs,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has an ongoing project to catalog Confederate monuments.

There are more than 700 Confederate statues and monuments across the United States— most of them in the South. A wave of opposition to them grew in 2015, after white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine African Americans at a historically Black church in Charleston, S.C.

From 2015 to 2019, 114 Confederate symbols were removed across the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. This summer, 52 more monuments have been removed, including ones with prominent perches in Athens and Decatur that were relocated despite a state law that exposes the cities to lawsuits.

“I think people, including elected officials, are coming to recognize that these are in fact symbols of hate and representative of anti-Black racism,” said Brooks. “The fact that they moved on this pretty quickly is encouraging.”

The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing last month on three bills that take aim at Confederate statues. One proposal from Virginia Rep. Don McEachin would require federal agencies to inventory all statues and other Confederate memorabilia they have in their possession. And Maryland Rep. Anthony Brown has a bill that would remove the controversial Robert E. Lee statue at the Antietam National Battlefield, a target for vandalism this summer.

Nationwide, polling shows the tide of public opinion turning against Confederate statues. A Quinnipiac University poll in June found that 52 percent of voters support removing Confederate statues from public spaces and 44 percent oppose it.

Erasing history?

The far-reaching appropriations rider could quickly change the landscape at some national battlefields. It requires the park service to remove from public view all “Confederate commemorative works” —monuments, statues and plaques — within 180 days.

An Appropriations Committee staffer said the Park Service could remove statues or build a temporary plywood box around them while undertaking a larger process to decide their fate.

The bill also bans the Park Service from using funds to purchase or display the Confederate flag except in “specific circumstances where the flags provide historical context.”

“This is not about erasing anybody’s history,” McCollum said. “At Gettysburg, the Confederate flag will be present, because that is a part of history. But we need to confront the truth of our history in the federal domain and on our public lands.”

The Park Service has been consistent in defending these monuments.

“The NPS preserves these and other memorials, often as features of a historic landscape, and offers interpretive context for the benefit of visitors,” the agency said in a statement.

The Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides — which trains guides as historical interpreters for tours of Gettysburg and other battlefields — has also come out against the provision. The guides often use the statues to tell the stories of what happened at their sites.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with the Georgia Recorder.