Kennedy Needs a History Lesson on the Confederacy

Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy during Civil War was born here and acknowledged by Monument, Fairview, Kentucky

The Jefferson Davis Monument in Fairview, Kentucky.
Photo: Joe Sohm/Universal Images Group viaGetty Images

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s latest news-grabbing statement expresses unhappiness with a development that has very nearly become noncontroversial outside of certain racist fever swamps: the removal of monuments to the traitorous bigots of the Confederate States of America. The Associated Press has the story:

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has condemned the removal of Confederate statues, saying he had a “visceral reaction against” the destruction of monuments honoring southern leaders from the Civil War.

Robert E. Lee, the top Confederate general, had “extraordinary qualities of leadership” that deserve to be celebrated, Kennedy said Friday in an interview for the Timcast IRL, which is hosted by conservative podcaster Tim Pool.

“There were heroes in the Confederacy who didn’t have slaves,” Kennedy said in response to a question about the monuments. “And, you know, I just, I just have a visceral reaction to this destroying history. I don’t like it. I think we should celebrate who we are. And that, you know, we should celebrate the good qualities of everybody.”

You half-expected Kennedy to add that there were “some very fine people on both sides” of the Civil War.

Perhaps this just reflects the man’s contrarianism. Or maybe, as in his waffling on abortion, he’s trying to reach out to MAGA voters. Or quite possibly, as someone who perpetually believes he’s being “censored” by shadowy liberal elites, he thinks voices in gray from the distant past are being silenced.

In any event, Kennedy needs a remedial history lesson on the meaning of Confederate monuments, which for the most part were not built to honor the “good qualities” of the generals and politicians they depict but to celebrate and advocate for the racist suppression of ex-slaves long after the rebellion they waged was crushed. Most of these monuments were erected many decades after the Civil War in conjunction with Jim Crow policies reversing Reconstruction and then later in defense of state-imposed segregation when it was under attack both in the courts and in embattled protests by civil-rights activists. They aren’t really “Confederate monuments” but rather neo-Confederate monuments erected for purposes arguably even less defensible, and a lot more recent, than the original effort to break up the United States to maintain and expand the treatment of human beings as property.

As a white Southerner who’s old enough to have experienced the Jim Crow police state, it boggles my mind that in one week Kennedy can go from seeking the presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party to demanding that we honor the work of the neo-Confederate authoritarians who created images of their authoritarian forebears as part of a scheme to use government power to dehumanize their fellow citizens. If the idea is to make RFK Jr.’s candidacy more attractive to reactionaries, maybe it has some cynical value. But I have a “visceral reaction” to anyone who claims that keeping Confederate monuments in place honors “history.” It honors only a whitewashing of history that can be consigned to libraries and museums, if not to history’s trash bin.

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