Historians say cultural and demographic shifts, as well as epochal events like the South Carolina church shooting, have served as catalysts.
In 1861, Union soldiers camped out in the Senate chamber attacked the desk of Jefferson Davis with a bayonet. Eager to destroy the symbol connected to Davis, who had resigned from the Senate to become president of the Confederacy, they were halted by an aide who insisted the desk belonged to the government and that the military was “sent here to protect, not destroy.”
The desk, which still bears evidence of the gouging, is now assigned to the senior senator from Mississippi, Thad Cochran, its historical significance superseding its symbolism.
But it is unlike many emblems of the Civil War and other powerful icons that are part of a larger movement to excise uncomfortable history from the more than two centuries of American life.
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President Obama said he would use his executive power to rename Mount McKinley as Denali, restoring its Alaska Native name. Democrats in several states have recently pushed to remove the names of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from annual party gatherings. And the debate has seeped into sports and culture. For the past few years, the Washington Redskins have been under intense pressure to change their name.
Historians say the clamor for these changes, often met by deep resistance from those with allegiance to what the symbols represent, is propelled by cultural and demographic shifts, and driven as well by epochal events like the shooting in June of black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C.
“We are in a purge moment,” said David Greenberg, a professor of history at Rutgers University. “There are so many of these things going on now that they ought to be looked at collectively, even though there are important differences from incident to incident. I think at the core of this is race.”
The movement has echoes in other nations. After Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s president in 1994, the country discarded its apartheid-era flag.
In 1966, former members of the Irish Republican Army in Dublin blew up the Nelson’s Pillar monument to the British naval hero Horatio Nelson.
After gaining independence from Britain in 1956, the Sudanese government sought to purge the new nation of the symbolic statutes celebrating colonialism. Ethiopia dismantled statues of Lenin and other Communist leaders constructed during the reign of the leader Mengistu Haile Mariam.
But some historians and politicians caution that there is a distinction between Confederate flags flying above statehouses and the retrospective condemnation of former presidents and other historical figures through the prism of their most shameful acts rather than the totality of their accomplishments.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, recently called for the removal of a statue of Davis from the statehouse in Frankfort, but stopped short of heeding a call to remove Confederate symbols from the Capitol.
“I don’t think we should seek to scrub out or airbrush that history,” he said in a recent interview. He noted that a large portrait of John C. Calhoun displayed in a Senate hallway had been chosen by a committee headed by Sen. John F. Kennedy, and that the panel had gone out of its way to give dispensation to historical figures in light of their overall record.
There is a difficult and often arbitrary calculation in weighing a historical figure’s contributions to the nation or its culture along with his or her sins.
South Africa got rid of its flag and national anthem, but the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria that represented the Boer Trek of 1838 was ultimately maintained as a national historical site, even though, like the Confederate flag in the United States, it reminded black South Africans about the legacy of violent racism.
Flags with Confederate components and statues of Confederate generals populate the U.S. Capitol, but they now share space with those that commemorate heroes like Rosa Parks.
The fight over the name of a mountain or the treatment of a figure from history rests in large part on competing ownership of histories, peppered with contemporary political context.
Removing William McKinley’s name was not meant as a slight to the former president, said lawmakers and others from Alaska but rather as a recognition of the enduring role of Native Americans in the state.
Opponents of the name change, outside of Ohio enthusiasts and McKinley devotees, said they understood the cultural significance of the name Denali, but chose to see Obama’s move as yet another example of an executive power grab, a Republican accusation for much of his second term.
“Since monuments represent these contested memories, histories and embattled national identities, their removal, redesign, renaming or destruction represents a rejection of those historical and cultural narratives in favor of ones that are more in line with the political, cultural and social climate of the day,” said Harcourt Fuller, an assistant history professor at Georgia State University.
“The United States is currently going through this debate between the meaning of various Confederate and other national symbols, which is being argued through the lens of heritage versus hurt,” he added.
History and popular culture can turn the beat around in a positive fashion, too.
“There are also re-evaluations that come about as a result of fictionalized works,” said Alan Brinkley, a historian at Columbia University. “A more sympathetic understanding of Nixon has emerged with films like ‘Frost/Nixon,’ and there is a new, more complicated image that the public has of Alexander Hamilton from the musical ‘Hamilton,’” he said.
While many Republicans on Capitol Hill are hoping that a focus on the future of Confederate symbols quietly goes away this year, the debate is likely to reignite during budget fights, and the country will again confront its changing contemporary complexion.