The deep—and often surprising—roots of British and American racismby Sarah Churchwell / July 10, 2020 / Leave a comment
In June, as Black Lives Matter protests were breaking out across America in response to the murder of George Floyd, the Pentagon agreed for the first time to consider renaming 10 military forts named in honour of Confederate generals. Donald Trump—New Yorker though he may be—greeted the news with outrage, declaring his absolute determination that these government buildings should continue to be named after generals who had led a war against that government, and fought to keep black Americans enslaved.
Most of these forts were first established as training camps during the First World War, under the administration of Woodrow Wilson, the first Southern president to take office since the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. In the decades following the conflict, America had to find a way to reunify after the bitterness of the fighting—and one of the things most white Americans at the time could agree on was white supremacism.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, nearly 500 monuments to Confederate white supremacy were erected across the country—many in the North—between 1885 and 1915. Over half of these were built in just seven years, between 1905 and 1912. This was the period during which Confederate mythologies of the Lost Cause of the noble Southern states and leaders gained purchase not just below the Mason-Dixon line, but across the United States.
Fort Gordon in Georgia, for example, was named for General John Brown Gordon, one of Robert E Lee’s most trusted generals. Gordon, who had a statue erected in his honour in the grounds of Georgia’s state capitol in 1907, was according to his biographer a “Grand Dragon” of the original Ku Klux Klan. Until his death in 1904, Gordon adamantly defended plantation slavery as “morally, socially, and politically right,” as did most of the white population in the former Confederate states. During “Redemption,” the period that followed the abandonment of the radical 12-year experiment known as Reconstruction, the South was “redeemed” from the project of interracial government and put back into the sole control of white Protestant men. The federal government soon honoured those who had sought to destroy it with civic landmarks across the country. The installation of the monuments reminded African Americans that their rights meant less to the nation’s leaders than did…