The fight over equality in the United States is prompting the removal of statues of controversial historical figures. Is this all about making amends or erasing history?
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The condemnation of Confederate statues and monuments in the United States technically started the moment they began appearing shortly following the Civil War.
Yet the smoldering debate was rekindled in 2015, when a Confederate-flag-promoting white supremacist murdered nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina. The perpetrator’s stated motive was to start a race war in America. Things heated up further in 2017 when white nationalists clashed with protesters over the removal of General Robert E. Lee’s statue from a park in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Everything exploded in 2020 following the death of George Floyd—a black man killed by a white police officer—all caught on video.
Floyd’s death pushed people over the edge. They were no longer willing to just rely on impassioned demonstrations for such memorials to be removed. Citizens of all races took it upon themselves to pull down or deface Civil War monuments all over the United States.
The mayors of New Orleans and Baltimore removed every Confederate monument from their cities in reaction to the national outcry. Other leaders of towns in Alabama, Kentucky, Florida and Virginia did the same. But statues are not coming down fast enough for many protesters. Citizens are skipping the legislative rigmarole and ripping them down themselves.
Of course, this comes with obvious dangers. There is the hazard of getting hurt taking down the gigantic structures or being injured during the vandalism and rioting that often accompanies these demonstrations.
Yet others feel this mob justice carries other dangers: that the movement could go too far and wipe out history.
Needless to say, this conflict is far from over. A 2019 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 780 Confederate statues or monuments at county courthouses, town squares, state capitols and other public venues in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Most are in the 11 Southern states that seceded from the Union prior to the Civil War.
Scores of these monuments promote Civil War battles or the heroism and valor of soldiers fighting for the South. Some, however, go further by glorifying the core values of the Confederacy.
An example is a memorial in Abbeville, South Carolina, erected in 1906, with this inscription: “The world shall yet decide, in truth’s clear, far-off light, that the soldiers who wore the gray, and died with Lee, were in the right.”
Few quotes better summarize the dispute over Confederate monuments as “symbols of heritage” versus “symbols of hate.”
Symbols of History?
Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard University, explained to Time what drives the thinking of the protesters pulling down statues: “Activists and organizers and people who are part of these racial-justice movements, including young white people, recognize that we can’t change policing in America until we change the culture of America, and the culture of America has been deeply steeped in white supremacist celebration and racist norms, of which Confederate monuments are the most visible symbols.”
“The point of removing the monuments is to move from symbolism of racism to the substance of racism,” he added.
But not all Americans are on board with these radical changes. Many Southerners see it as a blatant attempt to eliminate their history and identity.
“Confederate monuments are important to Southerners, and that’s because…from my Southern point of view, the history that has been taught in our schools is history from the victors’ point of view,” James Ronald Kennedy of the Sons of Confederate Veterans told Business Insider. He believes these monuments represent Southern values and disagrees that slavery was the principle cause of the Civil War.
“Those monuments were to honor the memory of men who fought for their principles—for the principles of constitutional liberty, the principles of which this country was founded. Just because they didn’t win, that doesn’t mean they weren’t right.”
“When slanderous accusations are made against the South” he continued, “they’re made against us personally, it’s personal.”
Amanda Chase, a Republican state senator from Virginia, was more blunt: “It’s all about shoving this down people’s throats and erasing the history of the white people,” she said in a Facebook video (ibid.).
Proponents of Civil War memorials lean heavily on the argument of preserving history. To them, attacks on monuments to the Confederate cause is just the first wave of attacks on all monuments under threat once the people or subjects they represent fall out of favor.
Where Does It End?
President Donald Trump echoed this concern of the anti-statue movement expanding beyond Confederate monuments. When asked about the issue in a press conference, he stated: “This week it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week? Is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really do have to ask yourself where does it stop?”
Protesting the Confederate statues has expanded into a push to rename military bases bearing the names of Southern generals such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Benning in Georgia.
Mr. Trump stated on Twitter that he is working with military officials who “WILL NOT be changing the names of our great Military Bases and Forts, places from which we won two World Wars (and more!).” The president added that he is not “a believer in ‘Cancel Culture.’”
John Curtis, a Utah Republican and senior GOP lawmaker, said he welcomed civil debate on what historical figures should be commemorated on public lands but decried the vandalism accompanying the removal of statues.
“I hope we all agree that vandalism is never the answer, especially when there is a legal route to change,” Mr. Curtis said.
The White House is accusing activists who want to remove monuments of American leaders altogether of conducting “a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.”
A July 2020 executive order on Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes condemns the pulling down of memorials: “To destroy a monument is to desecrate our common inheritance. In recent weeks, in the midst of protests across America, many monuments have been vandalized or destroyed. Some local governments have responded by taking their monuments down. Among others, monuments to Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Francis Scott Key, Ulysses S. Grant, leaders of the abolitionist movement, the first all-volunteer African-American regiment of the Union Army in the Civil War, and American soldiers killed in the First and Second World Wars have been vandalized, destroyed, or removed.
“These statues are not ours alone, to be discarded at the whim of those inflamed by fashionable political passions; they belong to generations that have come before us and to generations yet unborn.”
A Baltimore statue of Christopher Columbus, who protesters believe was responsible for the genocide and exploitation of native peoples in the Americas, was recently pulled down and flung into the city’s Inner Harbor. Two Columbus statues in Chicago were likewise toppled. Statues of Presidents George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant have also been painted over and destroyed.
This blanket condemnation of historical personalities is giving even supporters of anti-racism protests pause. Cultural critic Thomas Chatterton Williams, the author of Self-Portrait in Black and White, said he understood removing Confederate monuments but is uncomfortable with vandalizing statues honoring the Founding Fathers and American Union Civil War figures.
“Mobs in the street tearing down Ulysses S. Grant statues is a really chilling sight,” Mr. Williams said. “We should understand the context [of history]. But erasing these men from the public sphere seems like a bad road to go down to me.”
A still more puzzling rebuke came against Abraham Lincoln, widely considered the man chiefly responsible for freeing American slaves.
“The Emancipation Group” monument, installed in 1879 in the northern U.S. city of Boston, features the sixteenth U.S. president standing above a kneeling black man. Its inscription reads: “A race set free / and the country at peace / Lincoln / Rests from his labors.” Members of the Boston Art Commission voted unanimously to remove this 141-year-old sculpture from public view based on testimony that it made residents feel uncomfortable and reinforced a racist and paternalistic view of black people.
A spokesman for Baltimore’s mayor says that America is experiencing a national and global reexamination of monuments “that may represent different things to different people.”
Symbols of Oppression?
Advocates of racial equality would enthusiastically agree that Confederate monuments mean “different things to different people.”
Richmond, Virginia, mayor Levar Stoney said the removal of Confederate statues from his city—which served as the capital of the South during the Civil War—is “long overdue” and sends a message that Richmond is no longer a place for symbols of oppression and white supremacy.
“Those statues stood high for over 100 years for a reason, and it was to intimidate and to show black and brown people in this city who was in charge,” Mr. Stoney said. The mayor’s point is that the history these statues represent is one in which blacks knew their place in society—below that of whites.
The fact that most of these monuments were erected during a particularly racially heated period is proof they are rooted in white supremacy and institutional racism, civil rights advocates say. The majority appeared well after the Civil War ended, during two distinct periods.
The first began around 1900 and lasted into the 1920s as many states were enacting Jim Crow laws that segregated the first generation of blacks born outside of slavery. This time saw the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the rise of Lost Cause ideology—the romanticized belief that the Confederate war effort was not about slaves but about Southern autonomy and state’s rights. The increase in monuments during this time took many in the South back to its “glory days.”
The second period of monument-building began in the early 1950s and lasted through the 1960s. It was part of pushback to progress being made in the civil rights movement.
“It’s not just that the statues represent white supremacy, but the purpose of building the statues was the perpetuation of white supremacy,” James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, told Time. “This is why they put them up in the first place; to affirm the centrality of white supremacy to Southern culture.”
Frank Smith, director of the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., described the Civil War tributes as a daily affront to black Americans.
“Every time I pass by one of these, every time I drive down Robert E. Lee highway, it makes me think the republic has done…an injustice,” Mr. Smith told lawmakers.
When it comes to authorities finally doing something about removing public symbols of the Confederacy, he said that “it’s taken us so long to get that done, [citizens are] starting to take that into their own hands.”
As monuments and statues fall across the United States and around the world, cities and towns are left wondering what to do with the empty spaces that once honored historic figures tied to Confederate generals and colonizers.
The opportunity to reimagine these spaces has created a new discussion: Whose history should the U.S. now honor and why?
Brett Chapman, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, attorney and descendant of Standing Bear, a Ponca chief and civil rights leader, said he would like to see the fallen statues replaced by largely unknown social justice advocates.
“There are so many people we can honor that will show how we’ve overcome oppression,” Mr. Chapman said. “It’ll be a chance for us to learn and reflect.”
Others want to take a different tact: Leave the podiums empty.
A world with no statues. Is this even possible? Believe it or not, this is not only possible but is going to happen soon.
In the second of the Ten Commandments, God said: “You shall not make unto you any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: you shall not bow down yourself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me, and keep My commandments” (Ex. 20:4-6).
Most read this prohibition to idolatry and only focus on the part about not bowing down to idols. But God also condemns creating these images in the first place.
What the Confederate monument debate helps prove is that people tend to make objects of metal and stone and honor them—whether it is a notable figure in history, a Greek god, a totem pole, or Jesus Christ Himself. But most do not stop to think that there is a reason the Bible does not give a detailed description of what Christ looked like. God knew that, if He had provided a full description of His physical appearance, people would make images of His likeness and attempt to worship it.
God remains invisible because He wants people to recognize that He “is a Spirit” and He wants them to “worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
The truth on this matter is that the soon-coming Kingdom of God will not have statues for men to argue and debate over. While history will be a very important element within this coming utopian society, this history will not be represented by graven images.
For more on the Ten Commandments and how they will impact the world to come, order David C. Pack’s free book The Ten Commandments – “Nailed to the Cross” or Required for Salvation? You will be surprised at how much more this book reveals.