Ole Miss’s Monument to White Supremacy

New evidence shows what the 30-foot-tall Confederate memorial was actually meant to commemorate.  

Confederate monument at University of Mississippi
Getty / The Atlantic

Updated at 12:22 p.m. ET on July 13, 2020.

Confederate ghosts still haunt the University of Mississippi, where I teach. The school’s nickname, Ole Miss, is a play on the term enslaved people used to refer to their master’s wife.  Its teams, “the Rebels,” play home games on a campus where the Confederate dead are buried, several buildings are named after former Confederates, and a Tiffany stained-glass window is dedicated to the “University Greys,” a Confederate company made up entirely of the school’s students.*

There used to be still more. In the past quarter century, UM has distanced itself from many Confederate symbols, banning fans from waving Confederate flags at football games, ditching “Colonel Rebel” as its official mascot, prohibiting the band from playing the medley “From Dixie With Love,” and, after student protests, taking down the Mississippi state flag, which includes the Confederate battle emblem.

For the past four years, the fate of the 30-foot-tall Confederate monument at the school’s entrance has been the subject of bitter debate. Ever since the administration placed a bronze and marble contextualization plaque at the monument’s base, its meaning and future have been hotly contested. This week, after much wrangling, the board that oversees Mississippi’s public universities finally consented to its relocation to a “more suitable location.”

The monument’s defenders have long claimed that it was simply a memorial to the dead rather than an attempt to glorify the Confederate project or defend white supremacy. Student activists and historians have worked to challenge such claims.

As I argued along with my colleagues in the department of history in a 2016 report, evidence of the racist intent behind the Confederate monument at UM was damning—but inferential. The conclusions we drew built upon the work of fellow professional historians and have come to be accepted by most current campus residents, but we continued to fend off allegations that we were merely imposing our own interpretation on a monument that represented “heritage, not hate.”

We had been forced to make do with what we had, knowing that a key piece of the historical record was missing. Despite our dogged efforts to find the full text of the dedicatory address given by Charles Scott, a Rosedale attorney and a candidate for governor, at the May 10, 1906 unveiling of the monument in various archives and a variety of publications, it proved elusive.

We knew that locating this speech could be a turning point in the debate. A graduate student’s 2009 discovery of the oration given during the dedication of the University of North Carolina’s Confederate monument, in which the speaker boasted that after Appomattox he had “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because … she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady,” had effectively neutralized the claim that the monument was designed only to honor fallen soldiers. The text of that speech helped cut through all the cross talk, counterclaims, and mythmaking to lay plain the racism at the core of the project.

What better captures the original meaning of memorials, after all, than the words of the memorialists themselves? These speeches were designed to articulate what those who gathered to sanctify such monuments perceived themselves to be doing.

When I finally uncovered Scott’s speech in the Vicksburg Herald during a casual late-night search through newspapers.com on June 12, however, it was even more plainspoken about the white-supremacist legacy of the Confederacy and Confederate soldiers than I had expected.

Much of the address, to be sure, is boilerplate Lost Cause rhetoric, the likes of which we still sometimes hear today. Scott, perhaps clad in the Confederate uniform he often wore while campaigning for governor that year, defended the right of secession, asserted that slavery was a “mere incident” to the Confederate cause, and exalted the gallantry of Confederate soldiers and the nobility of white southern women.

Toward the end of the speech, however, Scott gave voice to the kinds of explicitly racist ideas that modern defenders of Confederate monuments generally no longer air publicly. The “crowning glory” of Confederate soldiers, he declared, was their service “during the nightmare called the reconstruction,” when they “boldly, aggressively, and intentionally overrode the letter of the law, that they might maintain the spirit of the law and preserve Anglo Saxon civilization.” Rather than singling out the war itself, in other words, Scott called attention to Confederate soldiers’ actions in the Reconstruction years that followed, when the former Confederate states were reincorporated into the Union and white southerners violently resisted the elevation of black southerners to full equality.

The resistance of former Confederates to Reconstruction, Scott insisted, “overshadows all [their] brilliant victories on the field of battle.” It entitled them to the “lasting gratitude of the civilized world,” which, he suggested, was increasingly beginning to see the “race question” in the same way that former Confederates did.

As proof, he pointed to an article by Charles Francis Adams Jr. in The Century Magazine. Reflecting on a recent trip to Africa, Adams, a descendant of the presidents and a Union veteran, unleashed a racist screed that included a mea culpa for Yankee mishandling of Reconstruction:

Even now we not infrequently hear the successor to the abolitionist and humanitarian of the ante-civil-war period,—the “Uncle Tom” period,—announce that the difference between the White Man and the Black Man is much less considerable than is ordinarily supposed, and that the only real obstacle in the negro’s way is that—“He has never been given a chance!”—For myself, after visiting the black man in his own house, I come back with a decided impression that this is the sheerest of delusions, due to pure ignorance of rudimentary facts; yet we built upon it in reconstruction days as upon a foundation stone,—a self-evident truth!

Seeing such views articulated by a Boston Brahmin and broadcast in the pages of a national publication gave Scott cheer. “Mark my prediction,” he intoned, Confederates’ efforts to “preserve Anglo Saxon civilization” during Reconstruction—“this one act alone”—would ultimately ensure that “the Confederate soldier will be reverenced by the north as it is already loved by all the people of the south.”

What, in the end, was this a monument to? What did the people unveiling this monument think it stood for?

In Scott’s estimation, Confederate soldiers’ greatest achievement came not during the Civil War, but during Reconstruction, when they ensured, through force of arms, that black people would remain subjugated.

The monument he dedicated, then, was a tribute not to a defeated people, but to a victorious one. There had been not one war but two: a hot war that lasted from 1861 to 1865 and resulted in the Confederacy’s defeat, and a cold war that followed, during which white southerners waged an informal but nevertheless systematic campaign of violence and intimidation against black southerners to ensure that the Confederacy’s defeat would not also mean the end of white supremacy. Confederate soldiers may have lost the former, but they had won the latter.

We have been told repeatedly that these monuments were the products of grief. But in reality, as Scott made clear, they were a celebration. On that day in May 1906, he could stand atop the dais confident that he and the assembled crowd still enjoyed the Herrenvolk democracy that the Confederate defeat and Reconstruction had, for a time, threatened to overturn. It was a day of jubilee. Scott did not want to reflect upon what had been lost, but rather, what had been won. And any black person in Mississippi who walked in the shadow of that monument would know that Scott was right.

* This article previously misstated that several buildings on the University of Mississippi campus are dedicated to the University Greys.