“Join & Support The United Klans of America, Inc.” Those were the words next to the image of a horseman in white sheet and hood, on a large billboard in Fayetteville, N.C., not far from Fort Bragg. “Help Fight Communism and Integration!” was also printed on that billboard, which wasn’t consigned to some isolated road, but sat near a frequented motel and restaurant. A “Welcome to Fayetteville” placard was attached across the bottom.
I saw the billboard in the late 1960s through the early 1970s, while my father was stationed at Fort Bragg, serving in the Army as a first sergeant and master sergeant, before and between two tours in Vietnam. The billboard symbolized the climate of Southern resistance to desegregation efforts and offered a constant reminder of the racial terror and violence carried out against African Americans by the Klan and others for many decades in North Carolina, throughout the South, and across the United States.
Such reminders were certainly factored into the daily routines of African Americans there.
I can recall so clearly riding with my father and noticing a pearl-handled, .45-caliber revolver, wrapped in a plastic bag, wedged into the front seat of his Buick. Years later, I asked about those times and about that gun.
He explained that once he arrived at Fort Bragg, he was told that some white deputy sheriffs and state troopers made a habit of pulling over black soldiers, particularly non-commissioned officers like himself, and harassing them, roughing them up, or worse.
He said he kept the gun beside him on the car seat because he always wanted to be prepared to prevent such an incident from occurring.
The Army base itself served as something of a shield from the climate of racial intolerance still quite evident during those years just a decade or so removed from legally enforced segregation of public facilities and most institutions in the South. When my father was a first sergeant, I enjoyed hearing white and black soldiers, enlisted men and officers, refer to him as “Top.”
My father, my mother, and I made friends there, both black and white, who were from many parts of the country. My parents and I dined with them and I played baseball with their kids. Those soldiers from New York and Chicago devoured my mother’s authentic Southern cooking.
But that Klan billboard is an enduring memory of my time living near or on the base. It was a highly visible part of Fayetteville’s landscape, and no doubt exerted its influence over black folks in the area, forever etched in their memories. It was one of the most familiar landmarks in town for African Americans, says a Fayetteville native and close friend of more than 30 years. He remembers it from his 1950s childhood and says it stood at that location for at least a half-century.
Searching online for images of that billboard, I came across similar ones that had been in other North Carolina cities and towns. Some had a “This Is Klan Country” sign attached at the top.
The aim of the billboards couldn’t be clearer. They were sending a most-specific message to residents of those places that the Ku Klux Klan and its sympathizers were always around. The signs were a recruiting vehicle, letting violent racists know they would have a place to call home and letting black folks know they ought not be too comfortable in where they ventured or what they said or did. Because advertising defines and dominates American life, it stands to reason that racial terror would have an ad strategy.
Many Southern communities, and some communities and institutions elsewhere, were devoted to a similar campaign when they erected statues honoring Confederate generals and other leaders fighting to keep blacks enslaved. The post-Civil War origins of these monuments and the return to displaying Confederate flags were entirely a reaction against black progress and empowerment.
The monuments were mostly built after Reconstruction as the foundation was laid for Jim Crow and the disenfranchisement of black people. The second uptick in the building of these statues was during the modern Civil Rights Movement, as Southern states resisted desegregation.
Communities raced to erect these monuments while pushing the Lost Cause myth of why Southern states seceded and the Civil War occurred. They sought to rewrite history, claiming the Confederacy was formed as a response to a tyrannical federal government that aimed to dominate Southern states politically and economically. They drew a narrative in which the role of slavery in the dispute was inconsequential. They then sought to glorify Robert E. Lee and the other Confederate leaders for their role in what they saw as righteous resistance.
These monuments put such leaders in the most heroic light aligned with that rewriting of history in which the Confederates were noble warriors fighting to protect their Southern, pastoral way of life, though their actual purpose, stated in writing as the states seceded, was to uphold white supremacy and maintain slavery.
Robert E. Lee was presented as expressing opposition to slavery, when in fact he said blacks were better off as slaves and was known as a particularly cruel slave owner.
The statues were part of a campaign to counter the true history while opposing efforts toward equality and human rights for blacks. They were part of a resistance movement – resistance against desegregation and the achievement of civil rights for black Americans.
So like the Klan billboards, these monuments were aimed at reminding blacks about who was still fully in power despite the outcome of the Civil War, court decisions striking down Jim Crow laws, and the passage of civil rights legislation. Blacks needed to stay in their place or face the consequences. The monuments were also used to reassure whites who were invested in the Lost Cause mythology. The men memorialized were presented as heroes without any mention of what they were fighting for – destruction of the United States and the maintenance of slavery and white supremacy.
Writer Jack Smith IV, in an online presentation for the Mic news and opinion website, called the statues “mass-produced propaganda.” They were turned out fast, across the South and elsewhere, and made from the cheapest materials. Smith noted how easily the Confederate Soldiers Monument in Durham, N.C., was pulled down and how it crumpled upon impact.
They statues often were created and erected as a direct response to desegregation efforts in communities across the South. The building and placement of these monuments were political acts, so their historical significance is no more than a pretext.
Companies such as Monumental Bronze Co. mass-produced the monuments to be erected across the South, Smith says. When towns didn’t want to pay the few hundred dollars it cost to make those statues, the United Daughters of the Confederacy would provide funding. That organization, Smith points out, also takes up such efforts as removing black history from textbooks and school curriculums.
The statues feature heroic images in battle, with inscriptions about duty, honor, courage, purity and standing up against insurmountable odds. Never has a losing side been given so much credit, while ignoring the treason, murder, and torture it fought to defend.
The statues and other monuments are part of this decades-long effort to sanitize and obscure the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow. Those who say the statues should be kept in public spaces to honor brave Americans and to explain the nation’s history are presenting false arguments, more than a century of false advertising. The Confederate States withdrew from our country to establish their own, with their own president and own constitution.
Unless Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis are portrayed as traitors to the United States, white supremacists, and defenders of slavery, any public display of the statues is a lie.
In the decades that followed the Civil War, Southerners who opposed federal efforts to ensure full citizenship rights for black Americans continued to invoke various aspects of the Lost Cause ethic. This rhetoric is not a thing of the past. They claim they are having federal mandates forced upon them, in violation of their notion of state’s rights. From Reconstruction, through the modern Civil Rights Movement and beyond, Southern states have resisted federal measures to guarantee blacks equal access to public accommodations, housing, and the ballot box, claiming such measures were attacks on their sovereignty. Similarly, white Southerners have argued that efforts to address the political and economic concerns of blacks in the region represent an affront to Southern way of life, its history, and its culture.
So when neo-Nazi and Klan elements descended on Charlottesville, Va., in July to object to the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue and the renaming of a park to Emancipation Park, they were following in a long tradition of defending revisionist history and taking a stand for white supremacy.
While they try to uphold the “Lost Cause” myth they put forth an entire array of modern-day myths grounded in racial resentment, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and misogyny.
Tiki torches, clubs, and shields in hand, they marched along with their Nazi chants. They told anyone who would listen that they didn’t get a job or a school admission because a black guy got it; aren’t making more money because Mexican immigrants are taking all the jobs; can’t get a loan because of the Jew running the bank; and can’t get a date because the society has turned women against them.
They said objections to their use of racial insults limited their free speech. They said everyone’s heritage is honored except theirs.
These kinds of beliefs don’t materialize on their own. People are fed them by their political leaders, and they are incubated by families and strong local histories. The lies are thus internally reinforced and go unchallenged. The pattern is playing out as it always has. People accept lies that make them comfortable with their resentments and prejudices.
Nobody is arguing that removing Confederate statues will instantly bring about racial or any other kind of reconciliation. But any move toward further racial progress starts with confronting our past honestly. When those statues come down, it is out of recognition that those being honored didn’t deserve it. The action demonstrates that we are willing to honestly confront the meaning of the statues and the intent behind putting them in public spaces. They stand as symbols of a white supremacist rebellion and were meant to menace black folks just as surely as the Klan billboards were. So removing them brings some measure of justice to those who were harmed by the institutions the Confederates fought to uphold.
The Ku Klux Klan billboards eventually did come down. Maybe it was because nobody was around to lease the space anymore. But it would be better if it were because our country would no longer tolerate them.
Mark Allan Williams is a journalist and essayist living in Baltimore. His work examines issues of culture, race, and politics.