Making Monumental Decisions

By: Eliana Lindenberg  |  May 15, 2019

By, Eliana Lindenberg

Durham, North Carolina. An angry crowd of protestors pulls down a monument to Confederate soldiers right outside of a former courthouse. A dozen people are charged, yet none of the charges stick.

Baltimore. Mayor Catherine Pugh orders four Confederate monuments on city property to be taken down. They are removed, by city workers in the middle of the night.

Memphis, Tennessee. City leaders find a loophole around a state law that prohibits the removal of monuments for US soldiers on public property in order to remove three statues of Confederate generals. The statues come down.

New Orleans. Mayor Mitch Landrieu calls for the removal of three Confederate and one white supremacist monument in his city. He says, “As a community, we must recognize the significance of removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments. It is our acknowledgment that now is the time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history.”

However, it seems to me that Mayor Landrieu, and other city leaders, have neglected the original purpose of these monuments as well as the continued importance they carry today.  

The loss of the Civil War was a devastating blow to the South. Its people had fought to protect their land and way of life from what they perceived to be an invading army from the North. The loss also aggravated the already-large economic disparity between the North and South. While the North industrialized before and after the war, the South’s wealth had been so closely tied with slave labor that its economic output couldn’t keep up with the highly industrialized North. Thus, the lingering tensions between North and South, particularly resentment from the South, required a gesture of goodwill on the part of the North. As Confederate veterans died off and their graves were left uncared for by the federal government, a renewed push for a reconciliation between the North and South emerged. Within the first two decades of the twentieth century, an explosion of monuments honoring the Confederacy were built.

According to one Southern Poverty Law Center study,”… these monuments are spread over 31 states plus the District of Columbia…” That is currently more than half of the states in the United States of America. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, 34 states were a part of the Union. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, two more states had joined the Union. There are currently monuments to the Confederacy in almost as many states as were a part of the Union at the outbreak of the Civil War.  

Why is there a concentrated effort to tear down these monuments? Critics of standing Confederate monuments often point to an alt-right rally turned violent in Charlottesville in August of 2017. The town was debating what to do with a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Ultimately, the city decided to take it down in May. In August, “Unite the Right” organizers assembled a rally to protest. The rally turned violent when one protestor rammed his car into a crowd of counter protestors, killing a young woman and injuring 19 others.

Criticism of the White Nationalist protest and the violence it caused have only bolstered the ongoing discussion many cities across the nation were already having about their Confederate monuments. Many feel that the monuments are oppressive reminders of the dark era of slavery and racism in this country and should be removed in order to move on (as Mayor Landrieu suggested). They are correct, in part– these monuments do represent a dark era of American history. These monuments do enshrine the men who fought for the right to own other people. They memorialize men who were bigoted and racist– men who looked down on other humans because their skin was a different color and because they came from a different place. Does this mean that we should remove their likeness from the public space, to be locked away in some museums only to be seen in passing?

I say no.

No, we should not remove these monuments from our parks and public spaces. Doing so would shift the discussion of our history out of the public space and into a small, confined area where a few batty history buffs can debate the topic. This is an issue that we must not as a larger whole forget. Tearing these monuments down will not assuage the historical guilt we, as a nation, feel. Nor will it fulfill the responsibility we owe to those affected by slavery, the racism of the Jim Crow Era, or segregation. That responsibility is certainly owed, but should be focused on fixing the present and the future, not on erasure of the past. In fact, instead of fixing the egregious mistakes of the past, removing these these monuments will lead to a far less enlightened future.

President George W. Bush once said, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.” Slavery and racism are a part of our history, and it would only be to our detriment to forget that.

There are those that argue that bigotry will exist as long as there are people. We can only teach our children to be kinder than our ancestors were–and better than we are–as long as we do not forget the bigotry of those who came before us.