John Oliver's Stirring History Lesson on Confederacy and Slavery: 'Monuments Are Not How We Record History—Books Are, Statues Glorify People'

John Oliver gave an elaborate—and sometimes stinging—explanation as to why statues of Confederate leaders should not remain standing Sunday night.

The British comedian dedicated the large majority of his HBO comedy show Last Week Tonight to a comprehensive history lesson about the divisive monuments that critics say celebrate America's dark past.

"You don't have to look hard to find people very upset at the idea of Confederate statues being taken away," Oliver said, the night after white nationalists again gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The protest came two months after violent clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters in the city.

Oliver said: "The Confederacy was fighting for the preservation of slavery. That is not my opinion—that is just a fact."

He pointed to numerous Confederate states' declarations of secession from the United States in the late 1800s, the Confederate constitution "which contains a clause enshrining slavery forever" and an 1861 speech by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, who said slavery was a "cornerstone" of the Confederate States of America.

"If the Confederacy was not about slavery, someone should go back in time and tell the fucking Confederacy that," Oliver said. "And yet, remarkably, people think the Civil War was about something else."

Oliver showed Pew Research Center data from 2011 that found that nearly half of Americans—48 percent, in fact—thought the Civil War was about "states' rights." Only 38 percent of Americans thought it was about slavery.

Oliver acknowledged that, yes, "the southern states were ardently pro-states' rights—but with some glaring exceptions." He said that Confederate states wanted the federal government to override laws imposed by northern states protecting runaway slaves.

"They loved states' rights, as long as they were they were the right states' rights," Oliver said. "To put it really simply: They just wanted to own black people and they didn't much care how."

The Last Week Tonight host also succinctly obliterated the argument that Confederate monuments serve only as a reminder of America's Civil War history, and not something more sinister. Oliver said that Americans are reluctant to acknowledge that the Confederacy and Civil War was built upon the idea of slavery being acceptable.

"There is something about [Confederate monuments] that symbolizes our reluctance to have that conversation," he said. "And that is the date they went up."

Oliver said: "While some initial memorials were built—mainly in cemeteries—shortly after the Civil War, the real surge came much, much later."

The British comic showed viewers a CNN chart that pinpointed that many Confederate statues were built between 1900 and 1920, three decades after the Civil War. During this time, southern states began adopting Jim Crow laws that segregated black people from the rest of society.

"There was another spike in the '50s and '60s when the civil rights movement was gaining steam," Oliver said. "So, those statues weren't so much commemorating recently fallen dead as sending a pretty hostile message to African-Americans."

Referring to a 1914 Confederate statue that was unveiled by a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Oliver said: "Some of these statues commemorate people who fought a war to preserve slavery, were erected to assert white supremacy, and were dedicated by Klan members."

Oliver then brought it back round to present day, leading into footage of President Donald Trump in August, in the wake of the Charlottesville unrest, accusing activists of trying to "take away our culture" and "history."

Oliver said: "The argument is that taking these statues down obliterates history. First, monuments are not how we record history—books are, museums are, Ken Burns 12-part miniseries are. Statues are how we glorify people. And yet the president seems considered that tearing down statues leads to a slippery slope."

The Last Week Tonight star concluded with this: "If we really want to learn from and honor our history, the first step might be to put some of these statues somewhere more appropriate: Surrounded by ample historical context, like in a museum."

To round out his history lesson, Oliver gave some suggestions for statues that could replace the ones taken down, including Robert Smalls, an enslaved African-American who fled the Confederacy and later became a member of Congress, and Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to become a U..S pilot.

As for Charleston, South Carolina, where activists have petitioned for Confederate monuments to be removed, Oliver said, "Why have a divisive Confederate statue when that pedestal can be filled by your favorite son, the actual Stephen Colbert."

And, on that note, Oliver surprised his audience with, yes, the actual Stephen Colbert, making a rare appearance on a late-night comedy show that is not his own.

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