The aftermath of extreme acts of public violence are frequently occasions for mourning, protest, debate and reflection. But they can also be opportunities to transform how we remember the past.
In the months after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African American church members in Charleston in 2015, municipal and state governments across the South removed or renamed 60 (of the roughly 1,500) symbols of the Confederacy on public land.
Now, in the days since the so-called “Unite the Right” gathering in Charlottesville in which torch-bearing marchers carried Nazi and Confederate flags, chanted “You/Jews will not replace us,” and beat protesters — murdering one — while “defending” a statue of Robert E. Lee, we once again are in the midst of an intense public controversy over the appropriateness of public monuments to the Confederacy. As we grieve over the death of Heather Heyer and seek ways to thwart the rise of neo-fascists and white supremacists, we should also consider other recent examples of public violence and their connection to the monuments in our public spaces.
Last winter, for example, law-enforcement officers trained tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons on protestors at Standing Rock, sending 26 people to the hospital. Meanwhile, American Indian activists have for years demanded the renaming of places that honor notorious Indian killers and pushed for memorials that accurately describe the murders of unarmed Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho people at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek as massacres. Following this most recent violence in Charlottesville, we again have before us an opportunity to step back and discuss the complicated fact of many public monuments, to question whether or not they represent anything resembling a shared history, to look unflinchingly at the ideologies they support and to decide what to do about them.
President Trump and others who oppose the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces protest that it erases “history.” Such claims should give us pause and prompt us to question whether such monuments honestly and accurately represent the past. Exactly what historical lessons can these statues teach us? They do not lead us to a deep understanding about causes of the Civil War or the experience of enslaved African Americans, nor do they reflect the plurality of views that existed within the American South at the time. Monuments, whether devoted to the Confederacy or the Union’s simultaneous battles with Indigenous nations for land and resources in West, do not offer a clear and objective recounting of “what happened” in the past. Instead, they are historical artifacts that tell us more about the time in which they were erected than they do about the subject they purport to revere.
They are, in essence, physical manifestations of an elite group’s perspective of the past that have been imposed on our public spaces in order to convince the rest of us to accept their point of view as a shared civic value. The statues that depict Confederate “heroes” are imagined as timeless remembrances of former glories, yet they are dramatically out of sync with the historical record.
This is not to argue that these statues are without any historical value, and for that reason, the decision as to what should be done with them should be vigorously debated and decided by each community that houses one. A good starting point for any discussion is to consider why people across the country decided to memorialize the Confederacy — a short lived, anti-democratic, pro-slavery, tyrannical and failed movement — at all.
Monuments to the Confederacy bloomed from the 1890s through the 1920s. Three factors converged in these decades and provided the context and motivation for the installation of hundreds of statues in city streets and parks. First, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, in an effort to honor their fathers as this generation passed away, helped to propagate a “Lost Cause” narrative that downplayed the central issue of slavery as a motivation for the war and pointedly excluded all African American perspectives. The group raised funds to construct monuments in public places and did so, not through public conversation, but rather because of their wealth, power and influence.
A second factor that led to the erection of Confederate monuments was the fact that the newly emerging industrial cities across the country were eager to acquire monuments to adorn their public spaces. New developments in metal casting made heroic-sized statues affordable, and in the ensuing monument mania of the 1890s-1920s, most cities chose as their subjects a narrow profile of “heroes” that portrayed powerful white men connected to military service, government and industry.
Finally, this period was also bookended by two intertwined phenomena that secured the ascendancy of white supremacy and Jim Crow. It began following the overthrow of Reconstruction policies that had extended civil rights to African Americans and ended with the enactment of racist laws that severely restricted the immigration of people from most countries outside of northern Europe, because they were not considered to be sufficiently white. Monuments to the Confederacy can indeed teach us a great deal, not about the Civil War, but about how power operated in America from 1890 through the 1920s: Those who cast their ideas in bronze and fixed them in our public spaces were an elite minority who were invested in drawing a very small and exclusive circle around who deserved to be seen and represented.
This brings us back to the question of what should be done with these monuments to the Confederacy — and indeed, to all monuments that glorify systems of oppression and violence. If we believe memorials in our public spaces should reflect our values and our shared historical experiences, one thing seems clear: such statues cannot be left as they are. They are neither “history” in any meaningful sense of the term (which is deliberative, considers a range of evidence, and is open to revision) nor are they representative of the communities in which they are located. Some argue that they should be systematically torn down. Removing them means eliminating a rallying point for present-day assertions of white supremacy. But it is not enough simply to take the monuments down and expect the historical conditions that put them there to likewise disappear.
Another option is to find ways to learn from them in order to prevent the rise of the societies and ideologies they were intended to extol. The position of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the organization charged with protecting places that represent our diverse American experience, is instructive: while history should never be destroyed, public memorials should reflect our values and therefore deserve community discussion and revision. A deliberative and inclusive process of consideration could result in a range of outcomes.
While some communities might reject the statues outright and some may wish to leave them largely alone, others might chose to engage with them as a way to contend with the complexity and anguish of the dual periods that they symbolize, which include both the age they claim to represent (slavery and the Civil War) and the time in which they were created (the reassertion of white supremacist narratives). They might be moved to local museums where they can be properly contextualized. They might be replaced with plaques explaining what had been there and why they were removed. They might be surrounded by other monuments to freedom, resistance and civil disobedience that represent a wider diversity of our citizenry. They might be allowed to stand but subject to historical or artistic reinterpretations.
As ongoing debates in postwar Germany, post-apartheid South Africa and post-communist Eastern Europe have shown, the fate of monuments to failed regimes, colonialism, and abhorrent ideologies is often hotly contested, but nevertheless demands sustained conversation. We have to trust that we too are capable of grappling with historical complexity and discomfort, and can similarly reckon with the painful past. After more than a century since they were erected, it is time to contend with our own monuments that continue to cause pain and justify violence.
Lisa Blee is associate professor of history at Wake Forest University and the co-author of the forthcoming book Monumental Mobility: The Memory Work of Massasoit. Barry Trachtenberg is the Rubin Presidential Chair of Jewish History at Wake Forest University and author of the forthcoming book The United States and the Holocaust: Race, Refuge, and Remembrance.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!