Monuments matter. They just do.
Right now, in this moment of extraordinary reflection on systemic racism in our society arising from the quite justifiable outrage over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other African-Americans by racist police, it may seem like a lot of frothing and fuming over lumps of bronze and marble that have been standing in parks and in front of courthouses for more than a century is a waste of time and resources. It may seem especially reckless to be having this national conversation while the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed 110,000 Americans and counting, still rages. But it’s not. This needs to happen. It’s a reckoning with our past and part of a reassessment of our history. As a historian, and as a white man who has benefited greatly from the systemic racism that’s embedded in so many institutions in our society, let me make this clear: the Confederate and racist monuments all need to go. Every single one of them. But we also need to do more than that.
More than a few parks and courthouse squares in the U.S. have seen a curious nightly ritual. Men and women, some wearing masks, come in the middle of the night with cranes and jackhammers, and the next morning another bronze Lee, Forrest or Beauregard is carted away to a storehouse. Historian Al Mackey of the Student of the American Civil War blog has been documenting many of the removals, here. But when the pandemic is over (if it ever is) and the clouds of tear gas from the protests clear, we’ll be left with a lot of empty pedestals whose very emptiness will remind us of the battles we fought over them and the pain they’ve caused. So, tearing down racist monuments isn’t enough. We need to put up something else in their places that cements in our minds a new version of history, supplanting the false and disingenuous pseudohistory of white supremacism that the erection of Confederate monuments, most of them in the early 20th century, was deliberately designed to build.
The header image of this article is a large statute of Union Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman in Washington, D.C. The picture above is a Google Maps street view of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, and the statue of the man on horseback in front of it is John Brown Gordon, a Confederate general and likely head of the KKK in Georgia after the war (though he never admitted it). The statute of Gordon, erected in 1907 specifically as a response to a race riot, obviously needs to be torn down and melted into ingots. But that will leave that ugly pedestal standing there. What do we replace it with? How about William Tecumseh Sherman?
Sherman, who burned Atlanta and carved a path of destruction through the state in 1864, would be a perfect choice to honor in front of the Georgia State Capitol. It would represent a wholesale turn against the slaveowning past of Georgia and a powerful rejection of the toxic “Lost Cause” pseudohistorical myth that tries to pretend that the Civil War was about anything other than slavery. In fact, I think a statue of a gilded General Sherman on a horse, similar to the one in New York City’s Sherman Plaza, would look so good in front of the Georgia State Capitol that I’ve taken the liberty of photoshopping an image to show you how nice it would look.
Below is a photo of the John C. Breckinridge Memorial in Lexington, Kentucky. Breckinridge, a local hero, was U.S Vice-President under James Buchanan, the President who sat in the White House drinking while the country tore itself apart over slavery. Having failed to broker a deal to forestall the Civil War, Breckinridge joined the Confederate Army as a brigadier general in 1861 and fought at the Battle of Shiloh. He became the last Confederate Secretary of War in 1865 as the Confederacy was collapsing.
Lexington itself had, before the Civil War, the highest concentration of slaves in the state of Kentucky. It was the site of a race riot, apparently instigated by Kentucky National Guard troops, on September 1, 1917. A few years later, in 1920, a Black man named Petrie Kimbrough, a/k/a Will Lockett, was accused of murdering a white girl. A lynch mob of white people, outraged that Kimbrough would actually receive due process as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, marched on the jail to kill him. The National Guard was again called in and they shot 26 people, killing six, during the ensuing rioting. Kimbrough was eventually executed.
The Breckinridge statue obviously has to go. But who should go up in his place? How about Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the Black woman from Memphis who led a nationwide anti-lynching crusade and was the co-founder of the NAACP? The selection of Wells-Barnett to go on this pedestal would send a powerful message about how Kentucky and Lexington now views its problematic past and the legacy of lynching and injustice. Honestly, isn’t she more worthy of a statue “preserving our heritage” than an obscure Vice-President from the 19th century, who also happened to be guilty of treason?
I have also taken the liberty of depicting what this monument would look like if replaced by a statue of Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
This is not a statue, but a building: the “White House of the Confederacy” in Montgomery, Alabama, still the seat of state government. This city, and this building, was briefly the capital of the Confederate States of America in early 1861 before Virginia seceded and became the capital. It certainly is worth preserving, but doesn’t the Liberty Bell replica in front send the wrong message? After all, Alabama was not only the capital of a nation dedicated to holding African-Americans in chains, but it was the site of the bloody crackdowns of the Selma voting rights marchers in 1965, and also the home state of arch segregationist George Wallace, who proclaimed, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
Imagine the historical message that would be sent if Alabama decided to spruce up this plaza with another addition, one that detracts nothing from its history or “heritage” but makes another powerful addition and statement. How about, oh, I don’t know, Malcolm X? Imagine further the symbolic power if a big statue of Malcolm X was made, say, from the melted-down bronze of former Confederate monuments in Alabama. Recycling at its finest.
Take it away, Photoshop!
The argument that removing Confederate monuments is “erasing history” is patently absurd. The notion that Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford Forrest would somehow disappear from the historical record if statues in a park somewhere were taken down is utterly nonsensical. Do you know what does “erase history”? False retellings of it, denial, distortion and “fake history,” like denial of genocides such as the 1937 Nanking Massacre, or the distortion of the history of the Crusades to push a modern Islamophobic agenda. No one in Germany forgets the Holocaust because there isn’t a statue of Hitler in a public square in Munich. All the monuments that went up to Confederate traitors in the decades after the Civil War have to have a purpose other than “preserving” history. Their purpose in fact was communicative: to tell African-Americans in particular that whites who celebrate racism were still in charge.
Also unavailing is the claim that Confederate memorials are about “heritage, not hate.” It’s true the American South has a unique culture and history. You could date the beginning of the culture and heritage of the South as 1607, when Virginia was first settled by the English at Jamestown, but even that would be wrong because it ignores the thousands of years of history of the region that occurred before Europeans got there. So of all the long heritage of the South, including its Native American inhabitants, stretching back thousands of years, why is there such a need to stress a tiny four-year period within that long history, from 1861 to 1865, to draw symbols and subjects of commemoration of this heritage? Thus, it can’t really be about heritage. It has to be something else.
It’s not difficult to see what the purpose of Confederate memorials and iconography is. Only those who are willfully blind to history, and our long history of racism, pretend like these monuments are about anything other than white supremacy. Let’s tear them all down. But let’s build something in their places that changes the conversation about our history.