The removal of Confederate monuments around the U.S. has spurred an ongoing national dialogue and physically manifested around the country, from Charlottesville, Va., to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus and Durham’s streets. 

This recent upheaval inspired an academic exploration of law, personal narratives and history at the Duke University School of Law on Wednesday.

A panel of four Duke professors convened for the event—called “Statues and Symbols in the Wake of Charlottesville” and sponsored by the Program in Public Law—along with a crowd that left few open chairs in the 168-seat lecture hall. From sharing their personal encounters with white supremacy to recounting the historical context of how Confederate monuments came to be, the professors provided insight into the effects that these relics have on society. 

“In a society where racial violence, hate speech and monuments to hate are ubiquitous, I do not feel safe,” said Trina Jones, professor of law at Duke. “My family members do not feel safe. Members of marginalized communities do not feel safe and we haven’t felt safe for some time now. We do not have the luxury to walk away, to yield to evil, to protest only when it is safe and convenient to do so.”

As Jones shared her personal history and thoughts on activism, she noted that she was not speaking on behalf of Duke or in her role as a professor, but rather as “a black female citizen of this country...who is honestly struggling in this moment.”

Jones grew up in Rock Hill, S.C., where she was introduced to racial tension at an early age.

“When I was about five or six years old, the Klan marched down Main Street,” Jones said. “I don’t recall the exact imagery, but I do remember the agitation and worry it wrought among the older members of my family, the people I turned to for protection. It was a sense of vulnerability, of intimidation, that permeated the family and that filtered down to me.”

Jones explained how when she heard that the Ku Klux Klan was planning to march in Durham, she felt compelled to join the counter-protestors despite the potential risks.

“Five-year-old me was powerless to do anything in Rock Hill, but middle-aged, middle-class me could do something on August 18 in Durham,” she said. “I could join with my fellow community members and say, ‘Not here. Not now. Not on my watch. In Durham, N.C. in 2017, white supremacists will not parade unchallenged.’”

Professor Thavolia Glymph, associate professor of history in African and African American studies, shared that she also hails from South Carolina and is a descendent of slaves. 

Glymph explained how the discussion of Confederate symbols recently gained steam, tracing its evolution from the controversy about the presence of a Confederate flag at the South Carolina State House, up to the recent death of Heather Heyer at the Charlottesville protest.

Glymph also elaborated on the history of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and delineated how the shooting that took nine lives there became a turning point in the national dialogue on white supremacy.

“[That massacre] served as a long overdue wake-up call to the problem, not only of physical violence against African Americans, but also of the violence of statues named for Confederate generals and soldiers and politicians,” Glymph said.

H. Jefferson Powell, professor of law at Duke, dove even farther back into the history of Confederate symbols. He discussed the context of and motivations for secession. Then, he explained the historical context behind the creation of monuments to the Confederacy.

“The creation of permanent Confederate symbols correlates very highly with periods of racial tension," Powell said. 

Powell discussed how Confederate symbols tended to spike in popularity at three specific times in U.S. history: during the 1890s, under Jim Crow laws and the disenfranchisement of African American men, between 1915 and 1935, when the KKK reinvented itself as a "nationwide racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, nativist organization," and throughout the period of the civil rights movement and desegregation, between the late 1940s and late 1960s.

Neil Siegel, David W. Ichel professor of law and co-director of the Program in Public Law, encouraged law student attendees to think of Confederate monuments from a “means-ends analysis” perspective. He said that their underinclusive representation of American history should lead students to question why the monuments were created and by whom.

Siegel, who had the idea for Wednesday’s event, noted the importance of uniting to face challenges that may lie ahead.

“We may be in for a difficult year. There may be more Charlottesville's. There may be events that are far worse than Charlottesville,” he said. “I hope that when events do arise, we will be able to, as a community, face them responsibly together.”