What Should Happen With Confederate Monuments?

Nothing? Tear them down? Move them? Add interpretation to them? Treat them on a case-by-case basis? Add more Union or African-American monuments next to them?

Professor Jill Ogline Titus of Gettysburg College and the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College would like us to differentiate the monuments from the flag. Article here. She writes, “As Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Robertsrecently argued in The Atlantic, flags are symbols of governmental authority. Flying the Confederate flag from a statehouse or a courthouse, they point out, implies official state sanction of the stated aims of the Confederate government – preserving slavery and upholding white supremacy – and the intentions of segregationists who began flying the flag above Southern statehouses in the early 1960s as a symbol of massive resistance to desegregation. Though some monuments – particularly those that stand on statehouse grounds – bear some imprimatur of state authority, most stand on ground that is distinctly historical in nature – battlefields – or not directly associated with government authority – parks, town squares, and university campuses. These monuments are testimony to their creators’ desire not only to honor their ancestors and the cause for which they fought, but to shape the historical memory of future generations. By placing monuments extolling the courage and sense of duty of Confederate soldiers and the constitutional integrity and moral uprightness of the Confederate cause in public spaces, they hoped to ensure that these themes would continue to dominate future generations’ understanding of the war.” She tells us monuments can be powerful teaching tools–but what do they teach? In many cases, they push an inaccurate view of the war. They teach us more about the generation who erected them than they do about what they purport to commemorate. They show us what was important to those who erected them, what they believed, and how well they understood the actions.

Monica Hess of the Washington Post tells us the monument issue isn’t going away anytime soon. Story here. She writes, “Ignoble history happened in America. It defines us; it is ours. And now we are wrestling with how to claim it — publicly, in granite, iron and bronze — or reject it, by consigning Confederate statues to scrap. How should Rockville, for example, address the fact that Maryland was a border state in the Civil War — more of its citizens fought for the Union than the Confederacy — and yet there are no Union monuments in front of the courthouse? How should New Orleans address the fact that, the day after it hired a contractor to remove four of its Confederate statues, the man received death threats and his car was torched? Is a statue in Alexandria, Va., in which the soldier is weaponless and downcast, more acceptable than a Civil War general on a horse — as some supporters of the controversial statue argue?” It isn’t going away soon because there are so many of these monuments around. She continues, “A few years ago, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, launched a research project whose goal was to determine how many statues and memorials his state had. There were no comparable national databases, and Brundage hoped his could become a model for other states. He assumed there would be a few hundred representing all wars and conflicts; instead, his team found nearly 200 for the Civil War alone, mostly Confederate. ‘One reaction is that these statues aren’t a substantial issue, it’s just symbolism,’ Brundage says. But the sheer volume of them made him realize that the symbolism was weighty. Confederate monuments weren’t something that citizens stumbled upon occasionally. They were part of the daily map of people’s lives. Some proposals for what to do with them would flop on a large scale. A mass tear-down could cost millions, as would another common solution: building an equal number of pro-Union statues. ‘We live in a landscape that is cluttered with monuments,’ Brundage says. ‘Even if the Confederate past could be erased’ — which it can’t, he says; removing monuments wouldn’t do that — ‘the actual mechanics of that would take decades.’ ” She also makes the point that monuments teach us about the people and times who erected them. “The ballooning number of Confederate statues around the turn of the 20th century, some historians argue, was a reflection of the changing narrative of the Civil War. It was no longer seen as a grievous loss but a noble rebellion, a ‘lost cause.’ Many of the statues that cause conflict today weren’t built in the years following the Civil War but in the decades following it, and not by widows or daughters of Confederate veterans, but by defiant descendants. ‘You can really see this progression in the three major statues of Robert E. Lee,’ says Gaines Foster, a historian at Louisiana State University and author of ‘Ghosts of the Confederacy.’ In Lee’s earliest post-Civil War statue, placed on the campus of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., in 1875, Lee is lying in repose. In the second, dedicated in New Orleans in 1884, Lee, the top Confederate general, is standing erect. ‘By 1890 in Richmond,’ Foster says, ‘Lee is riding his horse again.’ The South had re-risen, at least in the stone representations of its leaders. The narrative of America’s history has never been solely about what happened, but how we remember what happened. And memories change: An entrance to the U.S. Capitol used to be flanked by a pair of statues depicting American Indians as savages, saved by their white invaders. Both statues were removed in 1958, a measure of America’s changing understanding of its horrendous behavior.”

Professor J. Michael Butler of Flagler University looks at the link between confederate symbolism and resistance to school integration here. He writes, “I discovered the two court cases while investigating several episodes of racial unrest during the 1970s at Escambia High School (EHS) in Pensacola, Florida. I quickly realized that one issue linked the numerous school closures, student boycotts, and racially-based rioting over the nearly five-year period: EHS’s Confederate imagery. When the school opened in 1958, the year after the integration of Central High in Little Rock, students selected ‘Rebels’ and ‘Johnny Reb’ as their nickname and mascot, and adopted the Confederate battle flag as their symbol. As court-ordered integration progressed throughout the county in the early 1970s, the icons assumed greater importance to both white and black EHS students. Whites waved Confederate flags in the faces of isolated African Americans (who constituted approximately 10 percent of the student population), serenaded them with ‘Dixie,’ and typically shouted epitaphs like ‘N****r go home!’ during such confrontations. African Americans, for their part, refused to stand when ‘Dixie’ played at school functions and ultimately fought back when provoked. In December 1972, a fight between white and black students over the symbols’ use escalated into a campus-wide riot that resulted in the temporary closure and black student boycott of EHS. Sporadic fighting, protests and counter-protests, and school board indecision over the fate of the Escambia High images characterized the remainder of the school year as the issue moved into the legal realm. In January 1973, an African American EHS student and her mother asked for a permanent injunction against the school’s images. They did not file a new lawsuit; instead, they appealed under the Augustus v. Escambia School Board integration order on the basis that the symbols represented ‘symbolic resistance’ to a court-ordered unitary school system. Winston Arnow, a federal district court judge, agreed. In a fourteen-page opinion, he called the Confederate icons ‘racially irritating,’ declared they ‘generated a feeling of inequality and inferiority among black students,’ and proclaimed them ‘a source of racial violence’ at EHS. Because the county school board failed to resolve the conflict, Arnow reasoned, it violated earlier school desegregation mandates and he issued a permanent injunction against the ‘Rebels’ nickname and all related imagery. His decision was not without precedent. In 1971, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s ruling that ‘meaningful integration’ prohibited public schools from displaying ‘Confederate flags, banners . . . and all other symbols or indicia of racism.’ Smith v. St. Tammany Parish School Board (La.) determined that Confederate imagery ‘is not constitutionally permissible in a unitary school system where both white and black students attend school together,’ which validated Arnow’s ruling against the ‘Rebel’ nickname and related icons at Escambia High. Smith is the first case I have found in which a federal court connected Confederate imagery and white resistance to school desegregation. Although the Fifth Circuit Appeals Court eventually lifted Arnow’s permanent injunction, it did so to protect school board sovereignty in light of the fact that Escambia High students had selected a new mascot and nickname. Although the court’s decision compared the Confederate battle flag to the Nazi swastika and said the school board ‘might be better served by letting well enough alone’ concerning the mascot controversy, the issue created racial unrest on campus and divided the community through 1977. This had me wondering if many of the same arguments could be used in a legal battle over confederate monuments.

Adam Parker, a columnist for Charleston’s newspaper, the Post and Courier, asks, “What should be done, if anything, with Confederate monuments in public places? “Marcus Cox, a professor of African-American history at The Citadel, said there is value in preserving Confederate iconography in the landscape. ‘Ugly, out-of-date monuments can serve an important historical purpose,’ Cox said. ‘They mark and help explain moments in time. That Ben Tillman statue (in Columbia) is kind of like a growing pain. It’s important to respect the monument in order to mark our progress. … People think history is supposed to make us feel good. We have to address our problems and avoid repeating them.’ ” Parker continues to quote Professor Cox: “Cox said that a monument generally is taken at face value, as an object that refers only to that which it commemorates. ‘People look at it from a historical perspective, but it’s much more than that. Monuments are so politicized.’ They are a product of the moment they are designed, paid for and installed. The trouble is, the political climate changes and what was taken for granted by a majority during a certain period can take on new meaning later. Theoretically, updating monuments when important new information comes to light is OK, but any update is fraught with political considerations, Cox said. Who decides what to add and how to present the new information? ‘It’s best to leave them alone, to do nothing to existing monuments,’ he said.” Parker also spoke with Professor Adam Domby of the College of Charleston. “Domby said monuments are not a product of history, they’re a product of memory. ‘What they reflect is rarely what they claim to be commemorating. What they really reflect is what was going on at the time they were put up. You’re trying to cement a narrative of the past that in theory will be permanent.’ The trouble is that some of the narratives turn out to be ‘not very pretty.’ ‘In the case of a lot of Confederate monuments throughout the South, there’s a connection to Jim Crow,’ Domby said. ‘They parallel the rise of Jim Crow.’ During the Reconstruction period, 1865-1877, most Confederate monuments were put up in cemeteries, Domby said. They were not meant as public tributes or as political statements. After Reconstruction, there was a big monuments boom. Many were erected at government buildings such as courthouses and statehouses, Domby said. ‘They were going up as an expression of political power, essentially celebrating the return of the white supremacist ideology,’ he said. ‘At the same time, blacks lose the right to vote.’ It is impossible, then, to separate the installation of these monuments from the South’s legacy of slavery, segregation and the disenfranchisement of blacks, Domby said. ‘This is the same reason the Confederate flag went up (at the Statehouse) in the 1960s,’ he added. ‘It was in response to desegregation.’ ”

Parker next spoke with Professor Kyle Sinisi, a professor of US military history at the Citadel. ” ‘If there’s something the generation that put up (the monuments) could all agree on, it was that they were testaments to the men who fought and did their duty,’ Sinisi said. ‘In a strange way, these monuments were part of the reunification of our country.’ Sinisi accepts that our understanding of history changes as new information and interpretations come to light, but that’s precisely why he thinks the monuments ought to be preserved. Today, the pendulum has swung in the direction of political correctness and too many people are concerned with ‘the right to not be offended,’ he said.” Parker also interviewed Professor Bernard Powers of the College of Charleston, who said, “the dynamism of history can seem to contradict the permanence of the markers and statues, raising a rhetorical question: ‘Are those who are honored in the past to be honored perpetually?’ ‘My feeling is this: that we ought not to take down these monuments, because if we remove them from Charleston — Charleston has a reputation for being a Confederate city, Confederate Ground Zero, and for good reason — so if we remove the evidence that this is the case, does that irreparably harm the historical image of the city?’ Take the monument to the Confederacy in White Point Garden. It was created and installed, at significant cost, during the Great Depression, Powers noted. ‘What does that say about what those people valued? We can see what they valued. It is important to recognize that,’ he said. ‘At the same time, certain groups were undervalued, devalued and their absence (in the form of monuments and markers) is reflective of that.’ ” Another scholar Parker consulted was Professor Amanda Muchal of the Citadel. “Muchal said that monuments usually are sculptures that theoretically could assume a place in a museum where history could be better explained and contextualized. Another option is to add context to existing monuments, providing more information about the historical figure and his actions, she and others said. The monument to Ben Tillman, a demagogue who advocated for the murder of blacks, includes inscriptions that state only that he was a benevolent ‘friend and leader of the common people.’ After the church shooting, Marion Square, with its Calhoun and Hampton statues, took on new meaning, she observed. ‘It was a tragedy that, in so many ways, taps into our history,’ she said. ‘How do we acknowledge that?’ But anything modified or added to the public square could itself become controversial in the future. ‘History is never neutral,’ Muchal said. ‘It is about what we are and what we want to be.’ ” Parker also makes the point that those who claim removing monuments erases the past are wrong. “The monuments themselves tend to tell only a partial story or to altogether rewrite history.”

Recently, Louisville, Kentucky decided to move a confederate monument. With the recent death and burial of the greatest boxing champion of all time, Muhammad Ali, there may be even renewed emphasis on this, using a statue of Ali to replace it. Story here.

My viewpoint is that we should place the monuments in context and teach about them. That means they should remain intact. Whether they get moved to another place or not, we should have additional interpretation so people can learn about the people who erected the monuments and the times in which they lived.

What do you think?



  1. bob carey · · Reply

    Interesting and compelling post.
    My own thoughts are that the monuments to the Confederacy located in the those States that remained loyal should be dismantled, because I think that they are a slap in the face to those men who fought to save the Country. Also, the casual observer may misinterpret the monument and think the state where it is located was part of the Confederacy. I’m willing to bet that most Americans think that Kentucky was part of the Confederacy.
    I also think that Louisville should replace the Confederate monument with one dedicated to Ali. I have a problem with the national media’s coverage with the death of Ali. He deserves all the accolades he has received, but the media never mentions, to my knowledge anyway, that his original name was also the name of a well known abolitionist of the 19th century. The media runs the clip of Ali saying that Cassius Clay was his slave name when in fact Cassius Clay was an icon of the freedom movement.

    1. Cassius Marcellus Clay was antislavery, but not an abolitionist. Like Lincoln, he favored gradual emancipation. He was a former slave owner, and Ali’s family was probably owned by either him or his family. So it’s true it was a slave name, because it would have come from being owned as slaves by the Clay family.

  2. Oh, wow. One could write a dissertation here. My rambling (Monday morning is not my best time 😦 ) thoughts:

    A monument is different from a flag in many ways, and so deciding what to do with one is harder. Fundamentally, I think the decisions have to be made locally, by those with the appropriate authority. And we need to understand that not all statues/monuments are the same, for many reasons. For example, the ubiquitous “monument to our glorious Confederate dead” which graces nearly every courthouse square or lawn in the South should be left alone, perhaps with some modern signage putting the erection of the marker in context. The war happened; many people died; it was natural for those who lived to memorialize them. Use the statue as a teaching point. OTOH the marker for “the battle of Liberty Place” in New Orleans should be removed. Part of me thinks it should be ground into dust, but another part thinks it should be moved to a “Museum of the Lost Cause,” where it can be properly interpreted. Kevin Levin learned that in Prague, there is a “Museum of Communism” which houses many of the statues of Marx, Engels, etc., that formerly embraced the public spaces there. I think that is a model worth considering.

    I would not touch Monument Avenue. I might remove the Ben Tillman statue in South Carolina. I like replacing the statue in Louisville with one of Ali, but I am intrigued by having both of them co-existing. I am conflicted as to what New Orleans should do about the several “traffic circle” monuments.

    Modern decisions to take down monuments are certainly political acts, carried out because the people in power have the power to do so. Putting the monuments up in the first place were also political acts, carried out because the people in power back then had the power to do so.

    There is no “one size fits all” solution here. Something we need to remember is that rarely is anyone uniformly good or bad. I’m a Lutheran; there are statues of Martin Luther all over Germany, but Luther’s writings are full of rather anti-Jewish stuff. The statues should remain, not because they are celebrating Luther’s anti-Semitism, but because his historical impact transcends that one flaw.

    Like I said—rambling. Gotta get to work.

    1. “Like I said—rambling.”

      Very well put. It’s not a situation where there are simple answers.

  3. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    The fact that we are talking about the monuments is a huge step forward (to me). It indicates that we as a population have become sensitive to the feelings of a once sidelined portion of our citizens. I welcome the dialogue. My personal experience is with the Little Bighorn Monument. When it was all about Custer, my mother would not let us stop there when we passed through the area. She harbored an ethnic memory that did not appreciate the veneration of Custer. I grew up and never got to see the place with the family, but after the monument was re-interpreted as Little Bighorn Monument, and in 2003, when they added the Indian Memorial, my mother actually went and visited. She approved of the changes in her own cantankerous way. If done properly, reinterpretation becomes a pathway to unify diverse peoples, and it opens the door to further understanding of the past.

    1. Well said, Shoshana. Unfortunately there are some who want us to continue to ignore and sideline that portion of our citizens.

  4. But these questions of interpretation do not disapoear even with new statues. For instance, would an Ali monument be just about his boxing career or would it somehow discuss his association with the Nation of Islam and then his refusal to be inducted into the army? And what if the sport of boxing is seen as barbaric piece of the past in 100 years? Are we just creating another statue that would a torn down in the future? Or do we care about what future generations might think? Do we consider the lessons of what is currently happening to Confederate monuments when we create our own statues?

    1. I really don’t see that it matters. The people who have the power to do so will erect the monument and have it placed where they want. Future generations will decide for themselves if they want it to stay there.

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