Part of being an historian is changing your conclusions in light of new evidence. Just days ago, on the anniversary of the U.S. dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, I explained to a colleague how my views on the necessity of dropping that bomb had changed dramatically as a result of having read new evidence and argumentation over the course of the past 12 years. Well, I’ve now changed my mind on Confederate monuments over the course of the past 12 weeks.
It often seems that the social relevance of Civil War scholars exists in direct proportion to the amount of urgency within the public discourse, and, in the case of last weekend’s clash in Charlottesville, the amount of violence in the streets. With even the concept of what constitutes a “Confederate monument” up for debate, current historians possess a variety of overlapping and sometimes contradictory opinions regarding what to do with Confederate monuments that include: reinterpretation through signage (the specific language of which is certain to engender fierce debate), the addition of “counter-monuments,” letting individual communities decide, general removal from public sites (either including or not including NPS sites), and, in some rarer cases, removing public monuments to all slaveholders, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. These are all, I think, intellectually defensible positions. But there is no consensus, and there’s not likely to be one going forward.
There is, however, across-the-board agreement among scholars that Confederate monuments are never benign, nor are they the same thing as memorials to the dead. Memorials, in point of fact, are distinct aesthetic forms of commemoration. Often present in cemeteries or at sites of grief, they tend to be architecturally stunted (think of the Vietnam Memorial) and symbolize solemnity, mourning, and nonresistance. Monuments, on the other hand, are vertical and towering and celebratory; they honor and they heroicize. And monuments—like all collective memory—tell us far less about what is being commemorated than it does about the values of the people doing the commemorating. Indeed, I distinctly remember one of my mentors asking me during my Ph.D. qualifying exams: “What does the public memory of the Civil War actually tell us about the Civil War?” “Very little,” I replied. “Sometimes virtually nothing.” He nodded in agreement because he knew that public monuments reveal far less about the values, motivations, and public debates of 1861-65 than they do about the values, motivations, and public debates of 1896 (the year of Plessy v. Ferguson) or 1915 (the year the second Ku Klux Klan was founded) or 1948 (when segregationist Dixiecrats were surging).
With that in mind, the boom eras of Confederate monument building were not during the lifetimes of most of the leaders and many of the common soldiers being etched in stone. Rather, being erected between the 1890s and the 1920s—the Nadir of American race relations—and again during the era of civil rights and white massive resistance to racial integration, they were political symbols, often explicitly so. Confederate monuments were also both part and parcel of specific social currents, and the politics and spatial reclamation that underpinned them worked hand-in-glove with white opposition to African American political rights and cultural empowerment. That the monument dedications and, often, the inscriptions themselves, are rife with Lost Cause themes speaks to this reciprocity between Confederate monuments and white power. Indeed, like all monuments, they were designed not to teach history as historians think about history, but to project social and political influence. In fact, many if not most of them might rightly be called Jim Crow monuments.
Even so, as someone who formerly worked in public history, in which the profession’s first instinct is often to preserve then reinterpret accordingly, my initial impulse when the monument debates reignited across the nation (for African Americans in the South they never really go away) was to combine reinterpretation and the erection of counter-monuments (to rebel slaves, abolitionists, white Unionists, African American Reconstruction leaders, common sharecroppers, civil rights participants and the like) with local autonomy. One can’t learn much from obliteration, I supposed, even though many of the monuments as they currently exist teach anywhere from factually inaccurate to morally abhorrent lessons about the past.
I deemed our National Mall as a place where counter-monuments—including recent additions of Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.—appeared to be working. I held this assumption despite the fact that its current state still depicts a litany of wars and Great White Men, as well as a master narrative of the American past that is intentionally exclusionary because those who shaped the commemorative space (elite white men) were intentionally exclusionary. In fact, the Mall is an ideal case study in how to discuss representation on the landscape, including the relationship between what stories are presented to the public and social and political power. And while I teach this example of the link between commemorative control and social segregation every semester, my earnest hope is that someday I won’t be able to. I envisioned how counter-monuments might play a small role in that positive change.
I was receptive to local autonomy, too. A “popular sovereignty” approach of letting local communities decide had worked well enough in my adopted city of Albany, Georgia, I reasoned. The city’s Confederate monument honors the Confederate cause (which was, it bears repeating, secession and the explicit protection of slavery). Like so many others, it espouses Lost Cause mythology and speaks to our racialized interpretation of values and common political language by insisting, ironically, that local Confederates “fought for liberty.” It once loomed, as nearly all monuments do, over the city’s bustling downtown—its center of commerce and political life. After all, most monuments are placed accordingly in order to maximize exposure, political impact, and cultural authority. Some might rightly call them propaganda. Black Albanians knew this. Therefore, civic leaders in Albany, which is 70% African American, moved their monument several times, first to the fairgrounds on the edge of the town, then to the local cemetery, and finally to another county entirely, where it was rededicated in January 2000. Neighboring Lee County, where the monument now resides along a somewhat remote stretch of highway, is over 75% white. No one seems to complain, I reckoned, so perhaps this site-by-site, community engagement-centered approach works.
I hence tinkered with the idea of this popular sovereignty combined with the preservation and reinterpretation of some of the most egregious monuments, markers, and memorials (think of the Battle of Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans that celebrates white redemption during Reconstruction). I wondered if it wasn’t a mistake to remove even the most repugnant examples of white supremacist memory, as, strangely, those might prove the most useful and powerful models through which to connect the dots between Confederate heritage, Jim Crow, white supremacy, and the persistence of white social power. Perhaps this was an impractical or ill-considered thought. But, overall, I was urging my public historians’ compulsion toward restraint alongside my educators’ obligation toward didacticism, all through the lens of a middle-class white man—someone who’s never faced oppression.
Yet learning models and what is theoretically ideal or intellectually defensible must take a back seat to peoples’ lived experiences and existential concerns. As such, I’m now convinced that my incremental, technocratic, and authority-derived approach was naïve, and perhaps supremely so.
From where the political will for widespread reinterpretation might arise, I wasn’t sure. From where the funds for numerous counter-monuments might come, I could not say. The extent to which Confederate monuments would become flashpoints of deep and longstanding racial inequities, sinister reactionary politics, and even outright violence, I could not predict. My approach, I slowly realized, was the public history equivalent of something between an academic exercise and a labyrinthine, impossibly wonkish non-fix. Contemplating my position as an “expert” and a white person, as well as being in dialogue on the issue with racial minorities, particularly my students—the vast majority of whom are African Americans—also shaped my evolution. As historian Anne Marshall explained this week with regard to monument removal in Kentucky (which was not even a part of the Confederacy, mind you) and the failure of reinterpretation in Louisville: “Contextualization in public spaces doesn’t work because monuments speak not only to who had power in the past, but who has it in the present.” Indeed. The stories we tell always both reflect and perpetuate social power, even when we re-tell them. And sometimes social resolutions must be simple and urgent because peoples’ immediate needs demand nothing less.
There occasionally comes a point when the fetishization of the past encroaches on the well-being of people in the present, and even all the well-meaning learning resources and reinterpretation paradigms one can muster are wholly insufficient to justify the collective harm. To be sure, although Confederate monuments are not monolithic—despite the typical Jim Crow origin, they were erected in different places in different eras, and dedications and inscriptions do vary with regard to political intent—the overall impressions they elicit—the dominant public narrative they forward—is that of honoring the Confederacy, a government that was created explicitly to protect the institution of slavery, and of championing the Lost Cause, a cultural blueprint for whitewashing slavery, undermining Reconstruction, redeeming white southern honor, and justifying segregation and racial inequality. The academic particulars mean very little to people of color who encounter these monumental white supremacists in public places all across the South on a daily basis. With nuance a luxury of buffs and scholars, and with mass reinterpretation and counter-monumentation an impossible ideal, Confederate symbols—public symbols on taxpayer-supported public spaces—have for too long been sources of division and, for African Americans especially, sites of social and political alienation, of personal and communal trauma, and of ongoing oppression. Their removal is merely a part of—and must be a step toward—a larger social movement and political project toward racial justice.
No one seeks to “erase” Confederate history; there are plenty of books, classrooms, museums, cemeteries, and private institutions where Confederates and their symbols will continue to be explored, discussed, and remembered. But because it’s ultimately impossible to deny the considerable extent to which these monuments were created to symbolize the white supremacist and patriarchal prerogatives of elite white men during the Jim Crow era, their current existence represents too great of an antithesis of the choices, values, and aspirations of most Americans to rationalize keeping them intact in public domains. The recent attachment of white nationalist, men’s rights, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, and alt-right political factions to these symbols only makes this link between Confederate heritage and white power, both then and now, all the more evident. Like Confederate flags, the public monuments must go. A multiracial democracy—and the immediate needs of those whom the monuments were specifically erected to accost, intimidate, and subjugate—demand it.