Statues standing in public spaces, inscribed with a few words and a date or two, are not history lessons. They are symbols.
Some are hateful reminders. There are monuments to the Confederacy in 31 states, but most were created in the South long after the nation was torn apart by the Civil War. The statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, which the city council recently voted to remove, and which racists rallied around last weekend, was erected in 1924. As Ku Klux Klan membership swelled to 4 million in the early part of the 20th century, such memorials were created to rally support for Jim Crow laws that subjugated black people.
The next surge in symbols of the Confederacy came in the 1950s and 1960s, rebukes to court-ordered school integration and the growing civil rights movement meant to wipe out those vile vestiges of racism. The Confederate flag at the South Carolina State House that originally came under attack almost 20 years ago was first flown in 1961. That flag was finally removed in 2015 after white racist Dylann Roof killed nine churchgoers in Charleston, spurring a strong focus on such flags and statues in public spaces elsewhere. Nine black people had to be murdered before the state would confront its past.
These statues and flags are not symbols of a nobly fought war. They are symbols of the repression of African-Americans.
Relocating, removing or enhancing these monuments to put them into proper context does not erase history. Such changes can reflect the evolution of the nation’s thinking on race, but don’t eradicate the memory of the Civil War or the men who fought it. Such changes clarify that history and what came after.
This emotionally and intellectually complex challenge is not well served by false analogies that equate the men who waged war against the United States in the service of slavery to the men who waged war to create this nation in the service of an imperfect liberty.
Such analogies are particularly damaging when they come from President Donald Trump. His responsibility in the wake of the deadly violence in Charlottesville last week is to unite the nation. Instead, he has equated those neo-Nazi and KKK members who marched with race hatred with those who opposed their message. He has blustered in defense of “beautiful” statues of Lee and Stonewall Jackson that cause deep pain to many Americans. In doing so, he continues to legitimize the white supremacist movement.
The Charleston killings intensified the discussion already going on in many communities about these memorials. There and in New Orleans, Birmingham, Nashville, Jacksonville and scores of other places, residents have been working together to make sensible, difficult decisions about the future of such monuments. In Charlottesville, a decision was made to sell the Lee statue and rename the park.
The subject did not convulse the nation until Trump emboldened racist agitators, often from elsewhere, who want to bring fear and hatred to these sites. Theirs is, by all estimates, a tiny movement. But the president of the United States is lending cover to them.
Now our history has a new, shameful chapter.