The Struggle Over Symbols of Hate


For the Teacher:

The violent rally organized by white supremacists and Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 was motivated in part by their opposition to removing white supremacist symbols that remain prominent in communities throughout the U.S. – including Confederate monuments and the Confederate flag.

In this activity, students read, consider and discuss quotes about the presence of these symbols across our country, what the symbols represent, and what we should do about them. 
If you have not yet discussed what happened in Charlottesville with your students, consider giving students a chance to share their thoughts and feelings before delving into this lesson. See our activity here
Our background reading on the Charlottesville rally and the events leading up to this violent gathering of white supremacist groups may also be helpful.

Tweet below:  Several days after white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville in support of the Robert E. Lee monument, the city of Baltimore took down four Confederate monuments overnight.  




If faced with courage …

Read the following quote out loud:  

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Ask students what they think this Maya Angelou quote means.  Next ask them why they think this quote is relevant in the context of what happened in Charlottesville, VA, on August 11-12, 2017, when white nationalists clashed with protesters.

Check agenda and objectives

History, Monuments, & Markers

Below are a series of quotes and statements by different people from around the country who have taken Maya Angelou’s quote to heart and are actively and courageously working so that people need not continue to relive the historic terror and pain this country is founded on.


Founder and Director of the Equal Justice Initiative

“In America, we don't talk about slavery. We don't talk about lynching. We don't talk about segregation. Our silence has left us vulnerable to new forms of bigotry and discrimination that we need to address.
This idea that racial difference can make you a target of violence and terrorism is something that we’ve been dealing with for a very long time, and I think we just haven’t really talked about it.  …. You go to Germany now, and you are forced to deal with the legacy of the Holocaust, because there are markers and monuments everywhere. We do the opposite in this country. …. In all of these states, you find Confederate memorials and monuments everywhere, dedicated to the people who were defending slavery, trying to preserve slavery, and yet nothing about the pain and anguish and suffering and injustice that those institutions created.
Our nation's history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.
And one of the things we want to do by erecting [our own] markers and monuments is to get communities to begin to reflect more soberly on what this [American] history represents.”

After reading what Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative says about historical markers in Germany and this country, invite students to discuss some or all of the following questions:

  • What does Bryan Stevenson say about the markers of the Holocaust in Germany?
  • What does he say about Confederate markers in the U.S. and what they are dedicated to?
  • What kind of markers do you think Bryan Stevenson is looking to erect to “shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation” so that we may “reflect more soberly on what this [American] history represents”?
  • How does this relate to Maya Angelou’s quote?

For more information about historical markers that Bryan Stevenson’s organization the Equal Justice Initiative, is looking to erect, go here and here.  



Mayor of New Orleans Mayor  

“New Orleans is truly a city of many nations, a melting pot, a bubbling caldron of many cultures. There is no other place quite like it in the world that so eloquently exemplifies the uniquely American motto: e pluribus unum — out of many we are one.  But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront.  New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls bought, sold and shipped up the River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture.  America was the place where nearly 4000 of our fellow citizens were lynched … where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp. ….
And [this] … begs the questions, why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame... all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans. So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the [Confederate] monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical … lie by omission. There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it. 
For America and New Orleans, it has been a long, winding road, marked by great tragedy and great triumph. But we cannot be afraid of our truth. …. So today I want to speak about why we chose to remove these … [Confederate] monuments ….
The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy.
It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. …. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

After reading what New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu says the history of New Orleans and what’s being revered, memorialized and what is not, invite students to discuss some or all of the following questions:

  • What does Mitch Landrieu say about New Orleans?
  • What does he say about New Orleans history?
  • What does he say about the Confederate statues in New Orleans?  Why were they erected?
  • What does he say about “slave ship monuments … prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks … to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame”?
  • How does this relate to Maya Angelou’s quote?



High School Student and Charlottesville resident

“Hi my name is Zyahna and I am a resident of the city of Charlottesville. As a younger African American resident in this city, I am often exposed to different forms of racism that are embedded in the history of the south and particularly this city. My peers and I feel strongly about the removal of the [Confederate] statue because it makes us feel uncomfortable and it is very offensive. I do not go to the park for that reason, and I am certain that others feel the same way. This city is such a great place to live, but this simply goes against the great values of Charlottesville. 
When I think of Robert E. Lee I instantly think of someone fighting in favor of slavery. Thoughts of physical harm, cruelty, and disenfranchisement flood my mind. As a teenager in Charlottesville that identifies as black, I am offended every time I pass it. I am reminded over and over again of the pain of my ancestors and all of the fighting that they had to go through for us to be where we are now. Quite frankly I am disgusted with the selective display of history in this city. There is more to Charlottesville than just the memories of Confederate fighters. There is more to this city that makes it great.
… Let’s not forget that Robert E. Lee fought for perpetual bondage of slaves and the bigotry of the South that kept most black citizens as slaves and servants for the entirety of their lives. As a result, legislatures of the south chose to ignore and turn a blind eye to the injustices of African Americans from Jim Crow and anti-black terrorism to integrated education. These are all some things that this statue stands for. …. I believe that we should celebrate the things that have been done in this great city to uplift and bring people together, rather than trying to divide them. It is 2016, and things have changed, people have changed, and Charlottesville has changed. It is time for this statue to go.” 

After reading what Charlottesville resident Zyahna Bryant says about her city and the Robert E. Lee statue, invite students to discuss some or all of the following questions:

  • What does Zyahna Bryant say about Charlottesville?
  • What does she say about history?
  • What does she say about the Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee and what it brings up for her and her peers?
  • What does she believe the city of Charlottesville should do instead of dividing people?
  • How does this relate to Maya Angelou’s quote?


City Council Member and Vice Mayor of Charlottesville 

“This all started nearly a year and a half ago, in March of last year. I received several different phone calls, emails. There was a petition from a local student here in the area about an effort and a push to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee.
People in Charlottesville have been talking about this for some years, but just last year there was a nuance in a bill … that essentially said that if you want to move these kind of statues … it’s a local issue, so you have the right to … do so. My colleague and I, Ms. Kristin Szakos, we both decided to push really hard. We held a press conference in which there were …  people … who were pro-moving the statue, and … Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, who came with their large flags, and [were] very, very upset that we were pushing to do so.
Subsequently, … I’ve received all kinds of death threats, been probably called every kind of N-word that you can think of. …. But I think that we have awakened, to say the least. We’ve seen a group of people here in our community who have been marginalized, who haven’t necessarily had a voice. We’re waking up, and we’re saying that we are going to stand tall.
I’m a student of history. We see this is oftentimes what happen[s]… when you have specifically … African Americans who decide to stand up in nontraditional African-American places, in places in which we haven’t been very vocal or in which we haven’t … "caused trouble" or stirred things up, whenever we decide to do so, and our white brothers and sisters or Latino brothers and sisters, our brothers and sisters of different hues and persuasions decide to rally and ride with us, whenever you see that kind of uprising, the majority, and specifically individuals who believe that things should be the way they’ve always been, they normally push back.
You’ve seen this from the '40s to the ’50s to the ’60s. … we've seen this kind of story and this playbook play out. …. It’s been troubling for many people in our community. But I think, personally, what I often tell myself, and I tell the little kids who I talk to every single day, and when we’re walking around the city, in order for us to get to the clear water, the clean water, you have to go through the mud. And right now we’re kind of in the muddy part. But I would much rather us go through the mud and get clean now than just pretend as if these issues don’t exist and … not do anything for another generation.’

After reading what Charlottesville City Council Member and Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy says about his city and the Robert E. Lee statue, invite students to discuss some or all of the following questions:

  • What does Wes Bellamy say about the process of bringing down the Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee?
  • What does he say about history?
  • What does he say about going through the mud?  What do you think he means by that?
  • How does this relate  to Maya Angelou’s quote?
Considering the various statements read in today’s lesson, invite students to reflect on what people around the country are doing to push back on a chapter in U.S. history that instilled terror and pain, a chapter that Bryan Stevenson called “a shadow which cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.” 

The people we read about today are trying to lift that shadow, and shine a light of truth.  What are they doing, and what are others around the country doing to help us face history courageously so that at some point “its wrenching pain … need not be lived again?”


In a go round invite students to share: What is one thing you learned today? Or ask: What is one thing you’d like to learn more about because of today?

Suggestions for additional reading: