Although media coverage often focuses on the Confederate statues that have been removed, this obscures the bigger story: the ones that remain. In fact, less than 10 percent of Confederate monuments — 139 out of 1,880 — have been removed. Why are so many still standing? Our research helps provide the answer.
Here’s how we did our research
Our research began when we did a comprehensive accounting of Confederate monuments in the United States, building on data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, CNN, FiveThirtyEight, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Most were erected in the early 1900s, as much to defend Jim Crow as to celebrate the Confederacy.
An honor guard from the South Carolina Highway Patrol removes the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds in Columbia, S.C., ending its 54-year presence there, on July 10, 2015. (John Bazemore/AP)
About 91 percent are located in the former Confederacy; 43 percent are statues rather than plaques, flags or other memorials. About 18 percent are on public grounds, typically at courthouses; the rest are on private property, where public officials can do little to remove them. That may be why, more recently, dozens of new Confederate monuments are being installed on private property.
State laws ban removal of many Confederate monuments
A major reason that many cities and towns haven’t removed publicly sited Confederate monuments is that state laws prevent them. Currently, such bans exist in seven states: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Most of these laws were passed in the early 2000s — although North Carolina and Alabama passed theirs in 2015 — by Republican-led legislatures that wanted to stop local governments from removing those monuments. The states with bans house about 65 percent of all the nation’s Confederate monuments, for a total of 1,225.
In these states, localities can still find ways to remove monuments, usually through a combination of residents’ protests and local governments’ legal action. But it is more difficult. So perhaps it’s no surprise that of the 139 that have been removed, 82 (or 59 percent) were in states without such bans.
What kinds of local governments remove Confederate monuments?
The cities that have removed such monuments are distinctive in two ways. First, and unsurprisingly, they lean toward Democrats, as measured by the proportion who voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in 2016. For instance, consider Memphis, where 63 percent of voters supported Clinton that year. In 2017, the City Council voted to remove two Confederate monuments, despite the state restriction. To do so, the city sold the public land where the monuments were sited — Health Sciences Park and Memphis Park — to a local nonprofit, Memphis Greenspace, which then took them down.
Second, such cities have both a large African American population and an established organizational presence advocating for African Americans’ interests — specifically, a local chapter of the NAACP. In 47 cities with active NAACP branches, monuments have been removed, including in Atlanta, Dallas, New Orleans, Tampa and Columbia, S.C.
Columbia is particularly interesting because it is not overwhelmingly Democratic; Clinton won only 21 percent of the 2016 vote there. However, it has a large black population that makes up 42 percent of the city. Beginning in 2000, the local NAACP chapter asked the state to stop flying the Confederate flag above the statehouse. After a white supremacist shot and killed nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015, the group pressed its demand that the flag be removed. That June, activist Bree Newsome climbed the pole and removed the flag; by July, the state legislature voted to permanently remove the flag.
Interestingly, electing a black mayor does not seem to increase the odds that a monument will be removed. That’s probably because most such black mayors — 242 of the 288 in our data set — are in states with removal restrictions.
Trying to remove a Confederate monument, then, often pits local Democrats and organized black residents against state lawmakers who are primarily white and Republican. That makes monument removal especially contentious.
What would make it easier to remove such monuments?
Our research suggests one possibility: allowing local residents to decide whether monuments should stay or go.
We conducted a national survey experiment in 2018 in which 401 random participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform read a fictional story about a city that was considering removing the statue of a local Confederate general from one of its parks. Half the participants read a story in which the city decided to remove the statue, while the other half read a story in which the city decided to keep the statue. We also varied whether this decision was made by a city council or by the town’s voters.
Regardless of the decision, participants believed that voters’ decisions were fairer and more legitimate than those of the city council. This was true even when participants thought the city made the wrong decision about the statue’s fate. Robustness checks revealed that these findings held when controlling for demographics and political attitudes.
That option can’t be used everywhere; most of the Confederate monuments are located on private property or in states that do not allow local referenda. What’s more, even where local referenda are an option, advocates for either outcome — keeping or removing the monument — would have to be prepared to accept the voters’ decision.
Kathleen Tipler (@ktipler47) is an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Oklahoma.