Dylann Roof rampage 3 years on: Confederate debate still evolving

Roof's shooting spree in a Charleston, South Carolina church set off protests and a debate that continue today.

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    Brittany 'Bree' Newsome removes the Confederate flag from a pole at the Statehouse in Columbia  [File: Adam Anderson/Reuters]
    Brittany 'Bree' Newsome removes the Confederate flag from a pole at the Statehouse in Columbia [File: Adam Anderson/Reuters]

    Three years ago, Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot dead nine black worshippers.

    In a rambling 2,444-word manifesto posted online, Roof, who was 21 at the time, railed against African Americans, Jews and people of colour in general.

    "I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight," he declared, explaining that he chose Charleston owing to its demographic makeup.

    "We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet," Roof wrote. "Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me."

    The murders set off rallies and protests throughout the country with many demanding the removal of Confederate monuments and flags from public spaces, including government buildings. 

    Just weeks after Roof stormed the church, activist Brittany "Bree" Newsome scaled the 9.2-metre tall flagpole outside South Carolina's statehouse and removed the Confederate flag. Footage of the incident was broadcast on news programmes across the country.

    Since then, the debate has manifested in a slew of legislation from legislators on both sides, demonstrations and counterrallies, and the toppling of monuments and erection of new ones, mostly on private land. 

    Dylann Roof, a self-avowed white supremacist was sentenced to death last year [Handout via Reuters]

    Advocates of abolishing the symbols argue that they glorify slavery and white supremacy. For them, monuments of Confederate military leaders and politicians harken back to the southern secessionist states efforts to preserve the enslavement of black people during the US Civil War (1861-1865).

    Those who support preserving the monuments include both people who claim they should be kept intact on historical grounds to neo-Confederates and far-right groups who openly praise white supremacy and slavery.

    Activists, politicians and others who advocate removing these monuments from public spaces continue to face stubborn opposition from politicians and far-right activists.

    'People who vote are changing'

    In Denton, Texas, for example, a monument dedicated to Confederate soldiers who died during the war has survived two decades of local protests.

    In February 2018, Denton County commissioners unanimously voted to preserve the monument, which is in the town square in front of an historic courthouse.

    Seventy-two-year-old Willie Hudspeth, who was born and raised in Denton, started holding one-man rallies calling for the monument to be moved to a museum nearly 20 years ago.

    Willie Hudspeth has protested the Confederate monument in Denton, Texas, since 1999 [File: Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera] 

    "The commissioners are in their fifties and sixties, and they are hanging onto their values," he told Al Jazeera, "but the people who vote for them are changing. They'll feel it in the polls [in the future]."

    Vowing to continue his efforts to have the monument moved, he added: "I don't have the power to deal with the rest of the monuments [across the country], but I know Denton County, and I will do what I can to have this one moved."

    History and mythology

    Although the debate about the morality of glorifying the Confederacy wasn't new, it became a centrepiece in media across the country after the Charleston massacre.

    The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an Alabama-based hate monitor, said in a new report that 110 monuments and symbols were scrapped in 22 states and the District of Columbia since Roof's killing spree.

    Several conservative and right-wing pundits maintain that the campaign against Confederate symbols is part of an insidious campaign to rewrite American history.

    Last year, Fox News programme host Tucker Carlson summed up the sentiment: "After sending all the statues to the landfill, it will be time to rip up our founding documents."

    He continued, "They want to hit the reset button, they want to declare everything before themselves null and void, so they can restart society from the ground up."

    Carlson's line of reasoning was reminiscent of comments made by several conservative talking heads in recent years, among them fellow Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and many others.

    But Todd Moye, a history professor at the University of North Texas, dismissed arguments rooted in concern for historical preservation.

    In Denton, Texas, a Confederate monument has survived decades of protests [File: Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera] 

    "They engaged in bad history when they erected the statues and wrote the text on the plaques about the great principles those men fought for," he told Al Jazeera, arguing that the Confederates memorialised in such "fought to keep people enslaved".

    "There is nothing more political than the ways Americans choose to remember the Civil War and with it, slavery and emancipation," he added.

    "The Confederate fetishists aren't interested in history, they're interested in perpetuating mythology, and a corrosive one at that."

    'Somewhat apolitical'

    Shane Burley, author of Fascism Today, explained that the debate over Confederate symbols has evolved since the Charleston murders. 

    "One thing people should remember is that there was a period of time in which the Confederate flag was thought to be somewhat apolitical," he told Al Jazeera.

    "It never would have been politicised [in the mainstream public] if it wasn't for [Dylan Roof's] murders," he said, stressing that Confederate monuments, although symbols of white supremacy, were largely not perceived as such. 

    During the summer of 2017, a more complicated facet of the debate emerged around the involvement of resurgent far-right groups joining protests against removing Confederate statutes.

    The alt-right - a loosely knit coalition of white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis - breathed a breath of fresh air into the protests.

    Although the term was coined by Richard Spencer in 2008, the alt-right became increasingly visible after pledging its support for Donald Trump's presidential campaign and celebrating his victory in November 2016.

    One thing people should remember is that there was a period of time in which the Confederate flag was thought to be somewhat apolitical. It never would have been politicised if it wasn't for [Dylan Roof's] murders.

    Shane Burley, author of Fascism Today

    By the early summer of 2017, however, the alt-right was facing a growing mound of problems.

    Trump had distanced himself from the more overtly nativist camps of the far right in favour of aligning with neo-conservative politicians, anti-fascists were confronting alt-right events across the country and deepening internal divisions simmered below the alt-right's surface.

    While neo-Confederate segments had always been present in the alt-right, the movement's focus was on white identity and the creation of a white ethnostate in North America.

    Yet, the debate of the Confederacy's legacy offered an opportunity, partially strategic and partially marketing.

    "The issue of the Confederate statues was definitely up for debate in the public, so their attachment to that is really an attachment to a way back into the public conversation," Burley said.

    Attempting to revive its dwindling relevance and broaden its appeal beyond the hardline political fringes, the alt-right first meaningfully inserted itself into protests against the removal of Confederate monuments in May 2017.

    That month, Richard Spencer led a torchlit rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that was called for to voice dissent to the city's decision to remove a statue of Robert E Lee, the South's foremost military leader during the Civil War.

    "You will not replace us," the protesters chanted. "Blood and soil."

    They were outnumbered by anti-racist and anti-fascist protesters, and city officials, including Mayor Mike Signer and Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, subsequently decried the event.

    Signer, who is Jewish, and Bellamy, who is African American, were, in turn, targeted by a flurry of hate mail and threats of violence.

    In July 2017, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) descended on Charlottesville. Some 50 Klan members, wearing white robes and waving Confederate flags, were again outnumbered by hundreds of counterdemonstrators.

    Just weeks later, in August, the far right's new rallying cry backfired when people from across the country travelled to Charlottesville for a third time.

    During that rally, dubbed "Unite the Right", the far-right participants engaged anti-racists and anti-fascists in street brawls throughout the city. Many of them came armed with weapons.

    Unite the Right boiled over into bloodshed when James Alex Fields, Jr, a 20-year-old far-right rallygoer, allegedly rammed his car into a crowd and killed 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer.

    Another shift

    The far right immediately found itself facing an immense wave of public backlash. With cities pulling protest permits and prominent figures, including Spencer, banned from speaking on several university campuses, the movement was more isolated than ever. 

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    Rallies against the alt-right and Confederate monuments once again erupted across the country.

    Two days after Unite the Right, angry protesters took matters into their own hands when they toppled a statue dedicated to Confederate soldiers in Durham, North Carolina.

    In Dallas, Texas, a Robert E Lee monument was quietly removed on September 14, 2017. In Daytona Beach, Florida, three more were brought down earlier this year. In Louisville, Kentucky, a statue dedicated to Confederate soldiers was relocated after a long legal battle.

    All in all, 110 have been taken down since June 2015. Yet, at least 1,728 pro-Confederate symbols, including 772 monuments and statues, are still intact, according to the recent SPLC report.

    Activist Willie Hudspeth plans to continue rallying against Denton's monument [File: Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

    Those symbols also include 100 public schools, 80 counties and cities and 10 military bases named after Confederate icons.

    Additionally, a total of nine paid holidays for state employees in five states are marked annually for events, such as the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

    And while monuments were removed from many public spaces, a spate of them were built on privately owned land in recent years.

    "It's important to remember there are bills going through legislatures seeking to make it illegal to remove them," Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst at the SPLC, told Al Jazeera.

    Explaining that many monuments were built during the early 20th century during segregation and again through the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, Hankes said: "They were literally intended to be tangible reminders that white men are still in charge."

    For his part, Hankes expects that Confederate symbols will "continue to be a lightning rod for racists".

    Back in Denton, Texas, Willie Hudspeth is optimistic. "It takes time, but I think we're moving in the right direction, and they will be removed," he concluded. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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