Written by Noah Kelly
There has been a long-standing debate in our country about statues of Confederate leaders in the Civil War. The debate has reached boiling points before, especially in 2017 during the Charlottesville riots, but have received increased attention in recent weeks.
Partially due to the recent Black Lives Matter protests across this country, leaders across the United States have begun to consider taking down statues of Confederate leaders, the most notable case of this being Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s announcement that a statue of Lee would be taken down in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederate States of America.
The debate extends beyond these statues. NASCAR has banned the confederate flag from its events. The U.S. Army has said it will consider renaming bases bearing the names of Confederate leaders (though President Donald Trump has indicated he plans to block such discussions). Protestors in both the United States and other countries are tearing down statues themselves, from Christopher Columbus to colonialists to men who participated in the slave trade.
As a history major, people often ask me what my thoughts are on this topic. There are those who see this as a long overdue step in acknowledging the systemic racism embedded within our country. Others see it as an erasure of our history. Many will claim that these statues represent our past, good and bad, and tearing them down won’t help us come to terms with the mistakes of our past, and could lead the country down a dangerous trend of tearing down monuments of men like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.
With these arguments and many others in mind, I want to share my own thoughts on whether or not destroying statues really does erase our history, including possible solutions. I’m going to stick to the debate around Confederate monuments for the most part, but many of my points can and should apply to other topics.
First and foremost, I want to understand the intent of these statues, and why they were built. While some were built in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the vast majority were built several decades later during the height of Jim Crow and segregation. When you study the dates of when these statues were erected, the majority were built in two time periods.
The first is during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during the height of the KKK and the start of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. The second spike came in the 1950s and 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement.
One interesting thing to note. In the first spike, there was a large increase of monuments in courthouses, correlating to black men receiving the right to vote and participate in government. In the second, there was an increase of monuments on school property, especially after Brown v. Board of Education and Ruby Bridges attending a formerly all-white school.
These monuments were meant to send a message of racial superiority. When a young black child walks into school, or a black man walks to the courthouse to vote, and sees a statue of a Confederate general, they are reminded of the men who fought to enslave them, and even though they lost the war, they are still in control, they are still in power.
A clear example of this intent being the case is Stone Mountain in Georgia. This is the largest confederate monument in the country, and is akin to Mount Rushmore in a way. It depicts Confederate President Jefferson Davis and two of its most famous generals, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The relief was carved over decades, starting in the 1920s and continuing until its official unveiling on April 14, 1965–exactly 100 years to the day after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
This site was chosen by the United Daughters of the Confederacy primarily due to its significance as the site where the Ku Klux Klan was “reborn” in 1915. Many have claimed the carving is an unofficial monument to the KKK, showing once again how ingrained white supremacy was in the intent of these monuments.
The Lost Cause
The reality of these statues is that they were built primarily to reflect power. Why continue to build memorials to a war nearly a century after it ended? Especially when there have been other wars since then that could be memorialized? They are a reflection on what became known as the Lost Cause, a belief in the South that the Confederacy fought for a good and noble cause, and the North was an aggressive force that overstretched federal power in order to put down the South.
This is partially why many people in this country continue to downplay the role of slavery in the Civil War, and instead reference “states’ rights” as the primary motivator. This narrative was put forth by several prominent historians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among these men included Edward Pollard, Thomas Dixon Jr., D.W. Griffith (the director of the infamous film “The Birth of a Nation”), and even Woodrow Wilson.
The narrative of the lost cause attempted to downplay the role of slavery as a mere circumstantial part of the war. Instead, it was states’ rights that played the main part in the decision to secede. This ignores that every declaration of secession declares slavery as a primary cause of their secession, the Confederate Constitution guarantees the right to own slaves, and Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, is quoted as saying:
“[Our new government’s] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery and subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
This narrative also ignores that the South was not the beacon of small government it purports to be. While it may have championed to allow the state the right to own slaves, it is here that their commitment to states’ rights ends. In fact, in the late 1840s, when the Underground Railroad was in swing, southern states wanted northern states to send back runaway slaves, but they refused.
If the South was truly the champion of states’ rights, they should have been okay with it, as it was entirely within their right to protect runaway slaves. Instead, the South implored the federal government to pass the Fugitive Slave Act, which expanded the government’s powers and forced the northern states to send runaway slaves back to their plantations.
The Lost Cause narrative may also claim that men like Robert E. Lee called slavery a “moral evil,” ignoring that he himself owned slaves and never implored the government to abolish slavery, despite the tremendous influence he held in the Confederacy. The argument many Southerners purport today is that their ancestors fought for their homeland, not for slavery.
The Northerners were aggressors, and the South wanted to defend their way of life. Again, this ignores that the South fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, and that secession is itself an act of aggression. The reality is simple; the Civil War was fought over the question of slavery. The South wanted to keep slavery and continue to expand it, and they feared the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, would not only halt its expansion, but abolish it outright.
Erasing our History?
What, then, do we do to remember these facts? Many people who want to keep the statues up understand the truth of the Civil War and its causes, but want them to remain as a reminder of our past, both good and bad. Is that the right solution? We already learned that the intent of these statues was not education, but intimidation. They both honored people unworthy of honor, while at the same time reminding blacks in the South that they were unequal to whites.
The problem with keeping these statues up for historical purposes is they lack any historical context to understand exactly who these people were or what they did. The plaques are often brief, and make no mention of some of the atrocities involved. Take the General Lee statue in Richmond, for example. There is only one word on the plaque: “Lee”. It offers no information about this man, other than his name. Stone Mountain has zero plaque to offer any context.
Imagine an archaeologist from thousands of years in the future who is studying the since-fallen American civilization. He comes upon the ruins of Washington, D.C. He finds statues of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Dr. King, and infers that these men were incredibly important to the country, and the fact that they built statues of them means the people saw them as inherently good people who moved the country forward.
Now imagine he travels south to the ruins of Richmond, and finds this statue of Robert E. Lee. He knows nothing of Lee, just sees his name and the fact that he is on horseback in a military uniform. He likely will assume Lee fought in a war for the United States, and he helped the country win this war and progress the country forward. He will not realize that this man fought against the United States, nor that he was a traitor, nor that he killed American soldiers, nor that he fought for the right to own other human beings as property.
That is the danger with these statues. Without proper historical context from books or museums, the message is lost. The meaning can be misinterpreted by many people, especially young children, or people who were taught the Lost Cause narrative.
The best way to tell the story of the Civil War is through actual education. Robert E. Lee is an incredibly important figure in American history, but he does not need a statue to be remembered, since they send an incorrect message about who he was. Statues are naturally meant to honor somebody, reflect that this is a person worth remembering, admiring, or imitating.
One might suggest that a statue of a confederate leader could be kept as a way to remember the bad parts of history. This is understandable, but again, the intent and meaning of these statues do not necessarily reflect that. Hitler is an incredibly important figure in Germany, but it is not necessary to build statues of him to remember him. If we want to remember how awful slavery was, we can do it in a much better way. Instead of building statues glorifying the men who fought to preserve it, why not build statues of the men and women who fought to end it?
A statue of Lee could be replaced with Frederick Douglass. A statue of Jefferson Davis could be replaced with Harriet Tubman. Stone Mountain could be replaced with a lynching memorial that honors those who the Ku Klux Klan murdered and attacked throughout the years to preserve white supremacy.
There are a countless number of people who fought to abolish slavery. In memorializing these people, instead of the slave owners, we acknowledge the horrific nature of our past, while at the same time honoring those who deserve it, placing these people and events within a more fitting context. An archaeologist who comes upon a memorial to slavery will likely infer that something bad happened here, but we acknowledged it and are doing our best to remember it so that it never happens again. In short, you can preserve history in a much better way.
In Germany, instead of statues of Nazis, there are Holocaust memorials, and several concentration camps still stand so people can see the atrocities for themselves. They are spaces where these horrific deeds can be placed within their proper context. Let’s learn about slavery that way, through the eyes of those who experienced it, NOT through the eyes of those who favored it.
Preservation of history is extremely important, and it’s especially relevant to ensure it is taught correctly and not watered down to ignore problematic actions in the past. Every country, including the United States, has made terrible decisions in the past, and we have to acknowledge them properly. Failure to do so will lead to people learning history incorrectly. What does more damage to history is not the removal of these statues, but keeping them up.
They lack any historical context, and they were built for racist purposes to honor racist leaders who fought against the United States for racist reasons. We need to end misinformation and instead figure out how best to tell history in a way that speaks to the truth of what really happened, instead of allowing people to write their own endings.
McKinney, Debra. “Stone Mountain: A Monumental Dilemma.” Southern Poverty Law Center, 10 Feb. 2018, www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2018/stone-mountain-monumental-dilemma.
Parks, Miles. “Confederate Statues Were Built To Further A ‘White Supremacist Future’.” NPR, NPR, 20 Aug. 2017, www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544266880/confederate-statues-were-built-to-further-a-white-supremacist-future.
Stephens, Alexander H. “Cornerstone Speech.” Savannah, Georgia, March 21, 1861. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/cornerstone-speech.