Those who bothered to glance at the Confederate memorial that stood until Monday outside the old county courthouse in Durham may have seen its boy who wore the gray as a quaint relic of an Old South. To white supremacists, the monument and hundreds like it represent something more enduring than bronze or granite.
Believers in white supremacy see in Confederate statuary symbols of a deeply held belief that God intended for white men to dominate the household, the community and the country, according to a longtime North Carolina pastor who teaches theology at Yale Divinity School.
“The way they understand history has to do with the rise of the white man as God’s representative in the world,” said Willie James Jennings, who preached at Baptist and Presbyterian churches in North Carolina for three decades.
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“In their vision of the world, a properly ordered home and a properly ordered society begin with men at the top. And in this country, that translated to white men being on top.”
To those who believe in the supremacy of white men, Jennings said, there is no more heroic figure than that of a Civil War hero who fought for the Confederacy and tried to preserve a way of life in which – in hindsight, at least – white men ruled all.
Jennings, who wrote “The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race,” said many white supremacists identify as Christian. It is no surprise, he said, that they would rally around an oversized statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee on horseback in a park in Charlottesville, Va., to protest its planned removal.
“It’s the worship of a civic image of a powerful white man who orders the world in the way it should be,” Jennings said. “That’s what they’re worshiping. It’s a form of idolotry. God hates idolatry.”
The Charlottesville protest on Saturday, called “Unite the Right,” was met by counter-protesters. The two sides shouted and threw objects at each other, and then a man drove a car into the crowd of counter-protesters, killing a women and injuring 19 other people.
On Monday night, a crowd gathered in Durham around the Confederate Soldiers Monument, a gun-toting bronze atop a granite pedestal outside the old Durham County Courthouse. A woman climbed a ladder and draped a rope around the statue’s neck, and people on the ground toppled the figure from its perch. The crowd cheered and ran forward to kick the crumpled form.
The many hundreds of Confederate statues and monuments that stand across the South generated strong emotions when they were erected, too.
“They were intended to,” said Myrick Howard, president of Preservation NC and a lecturer in historic preservation at UNC’s Department of City & Regional Planning. Most of the statues were minted around the turn of the 20th century, when African Americans were making social gains and there was a large wave of immigrants pouring into the U.S., or during the 1950s and ’60s, during the American civil rights movement.
“They were intended to raise white supremacy and dash any hopes of African Americans,” Howard said. “They were symbols of white power, no question about it.”
In recent decades, many communities have debated whether to remove their Confederate monuments; to relocate them into museums, where they could be placed into a historical context; or to complement them with statues of notable African Americans or other people of color. At the same time, Confederate memorials continue to be built.
In North Carolina, a monument of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was dedicated on private land near Bentonville Battlefield as recently as 2010.
Jennings, the pastor and Bible scholar, said claiming white supremacy as God’s intent, and using statues of Confederate Civil War heroes as symbols of a racist belief, reflects poorly on the Christian faith.
“It bothers me that these folks are Christian and doing this,” he said. “They are Christians, but they are Christians doing horrible things. They are Christians locked in their disobedience and their pride.”