Eric Foner is an award-winning historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction, author most recently of Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History, a collection of essays from The Nation magazine. He teaches history at Columbia University and is also a member of the Editorial Board of The Nation. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: The Confederate statue that was ostensibly the focus of the events in Charlottesville was of Robert E. Lee, who surrendered at Appomattox in 1865. What can you tell us about this statue?
Eric Foner: The key thing to remember about this statue, and most of these statues, is that they have very little to do with the Civil War. This statute was erected in 1924, almost 70 years after the end of the Civil War. It was erected at height of Jim Crow, the height of the era of segregation, disenfranchisement, and lynching. By the way, after the Civil War Robert E. Lee refused to criticize those who lynched black people or used violence of other kinds against them. He opposed black suffrage. He thought of himself as a gentleman, which he probably was, but he certainly didn’t think black people should have any rights.
Like all these statues, this one was erected as a statement about who’s in charge, about the power structure in society. My feeling is that it is not necessary to take down all these statues. Instead, I would like to see them erect other statues. Instead of taking down Lee, let’s put up a statue right near him—of, let us say, John M. Langston, a black member of Congress from Virginia in the 1880s, right after the end of Reconstruction. You don’t see very many statues to black leaders of the Reconstruction or post-Reconstruction South in Virginia or anywhere else. So if we’re going to talk about statues, I say let’s have the statuary be fully representative of Southern history.
JW: A lot of these demonstrators in Charlottesville called themselves neo-Confederates. What exactly is the neo-Confederate movement today? And what’s its connection to the president of the United States?
EF: The neo-Confederate movement has been around for a good while. Ostensibly their aim is to commemorate and glorify the history of the Southern Confederacy. But what they really are about is white supremacy, or what is sometimes called white nationalism. They use the Confederacy as a symbol of white supremacy, which they are trying to bolster in this country. It’s about who should be ruling America right now. Is Donald Trump a neo-Confederate? To call him that suggests he has coherent ideas—which clearly he does not. I don’t think he knows anything about the Confederacy or the Civil War, but he does know that these kinds of people are part of his political base—as he made clear on Tuesday in his defense of the white nationalist demonstrators in Charlottesville.