160 Confederate symbols toppled in 2020, but hundreds remain

At least 160 public symbols honoring Confederate rebels across the nation were toppled or removed from public spaces throughout 2020, according to a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

On Tuesday, the nonprofit legal advocacy group plans to update its “Whose Heritage?” database, which keeps a continuous tally of statues, symbols, placards, buildings and public parks dedicated to the Confederacy, according to The Associated Press.

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Before last year, there had been nearly 2,100 symbols nationwide, primarily in the South.

There are now about 704 Confederate monuments still standing, the SPLC says. And taking some of them down may be difficult, particularly in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee — states where lawmakers have enacted policies protecting the monuments.

The law center began tracking a growing movement to get rid of the monuments in 2015 after a white supremacist shot and killed nine worshippers at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

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“These racist symbols only serve to uphold revisionist history and the belief that white supremacy remains morally acceptable,” SPLC chief of staff Lecia Brooks said in a statement. “This is why we believe that all symbols of white supremacy should be removed from public spaces.”

Among the 160 symbols that have been taken down include a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, which was removed from the U.S. Capitol just weeks before the deadly riot Jan. 6.

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The Lee statue, which represented the state of Virginia as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection, had stood in the Capitol for 111 years, the AP reported.

Sometime after visitors and tourists are welcomed back to the U.S. Capitol, there will be a statue honoring Virginia’s Barbara Johns, a 16-year-old Black girl who staged a strike in 1951 over unequal conditions at her segregated high school in Farmville. Her actions led to court-ordered integration of public schools across the U.S., via the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education.

Each state legislature can choose up to two representatives to honor in the Capitol’s collection. In December, a state commission recommended replacing Lee’s statue with a statue of Johns.

Supporters told the AP that Virginia’s Legislature has nearly finalized her elevation alongside George Washington.

Long seen as offensive to Black Americans, Lee’s Capitol statue wasn’t the only one representing a figure from the Lost Cause, a term referring to a belief that fighting on the side of slaveholders in the Civil War was just and heroic.

Jefferson Davis, who served as president of the Confederate States of America before becoming a U.S. senator from Mississippi, is one of two figures representing that state in the Capitol.

“Exposing children to anything that falsely promotes the idea of white superiority and Black inferiority is dehumanizing,” Brooks of the SPLC said in her statement to the AP.

During the nationwide unrest that erupted over the police custody death of George Floyd last May, Civil War relics, Confederate statues and monuments to slavery were vandalized and torn down in many cities across the country.

The U.S. military also banned the display of the Confederate flag in public and work areas on bases, ships, aircraft and submarines.

That led then-President Donald Trump to step up his defense of Confederate symbols, calling them a necessary part of American history and culture.

»RELATED: As a candidate, Trump said Confederate flag should be ‘put in a museum’

Throughout his presidency, Trump sought to stoke white fear and resentment among his base, portraying himself as a protector of an old order that 2020 polls showed much of America decried as entrenched racism.

Trump also regularly defended Civil War symbols, which kept tensions hot throughout the country, with frequent racial confrontations involving the Confederate flag.

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One man arrested for participating in the Capitol riot was photographed inside the U.S. Capitol carrying the Confederate flag, the most widely recognized symbol of the Confederacy — one widely seen by minority groups as a potent symbol of white supremacy in America.

The battle flag was resurrected by the resurgent Ku Klux Klan and used by Southern Dixiecrats during the 1948 presidential election. Organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans have also adopted the flag as a symbol of Southern heritage.

The flag was popularized again in the 1980s hit TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard,” which featured an orange Dodge Charger with the battle flag painted on its roof. The car was aptly named The General Lee.

Confederate flag in Georgia

On Feb. 13, 1956, the Georgia state flag was changed to incorporate the Confederate battle emblem into the design as a response to the Supreme Court ruling on school desegregation.

In the late 1980s, Black state legislators pushed to drop the state flag with the Confederate battle emblem and restore its predecessor, but they failed.

In 1994, James Coleman of Atlanta filed suit against then-Gov. Zell Miller and the state of Georgia over the state flag. Miller had said he wanted the Confederate emblem removed, but lawmakers wouldn’t pass such legislation and the matter was dropped.

The Georgia Legislature next approved a new flag in 2001 and again in 2003. Then in a March 2004 referendum, Georgia voters approved the state’s current flag, which closely resembles the first official national flag of the Confederacy, often called the Stars and Bars.

Information provided by The Associated Press was used to supplement this report.