In Monument Debate, Calls for an Overdue Reckoning on Race and Southern Identity

EUFAULA, Ala. — The facts of Southern history, according to Brad Griffin, are beyond dispute.

“It was a slave society,” he said. “They had white supremacy. It was definitely racist. This is the truth.”

It is a truth long hammered by activists who oppose the civic display of monuments honoring the Confederacy. But Mr. Griffin, 36, is no such activist. He sees the white-dominated reactionary ideology of the antebellum South not as something to condemn but as a source of inspiration. An avowed white nationalist, Mr. Griffin just last Saturday was in the streets of Charlottesville, Va., to protest the removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee.

For more than 150 years, the exaltation and defense of Confederate memory have been maintained with remarkable persistence in everything from town square monuments and state flags to seminal expressions of American culture like the films “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind.” In recent decades, the most visible defense has been mounted by white Southerners who argue that the statues and flags represent “heritage, not hate,” an assertion that many blacks, liberals and historians have viewed skeptically.

But after the violent demonstrations last weekend in Charlottesville, which left a 32-year-old woman dead, the complex intersection of race, culture and Southern identity has reached a stunning level of national visibility. This is at a time when the most prominent champions of the Confederate legacy have been far-right groups whose aims lie explicitly in white supremacism and who express little interest in battle tactics, military uniforms or the trappings of a bygone Southern culture.

The result is a dizzying churn in the often shadowy worlds of far-right and Confederate culture that has sparked a major national debate over race and identity, along with calls for a true and some say long overdue national reckoning with Southern and American history.