On Overstating the Case for Confederate Monuments

It is that values question we should really be asking. As far as I can tell, those who object to the removal of the statutes seem to be saying that those Confederate generals who defended slavery, secession, and white supremacy represent the values of a twenty-first century America that is becoming more egalitarian and diverse.

The Robert Edward Lee statue in Emancipation Park
The Robert Edward Lee statue in Emancipation Park

It is overstatement to say that by removing monuments to Confederate generals one is erasing all history. Commentators have wondered aloud whether this will become a long-term movement towards total eradication of history of the South. The president even suggested this by asking when this will stop. He called the removal of Confederate monuments the destruction of culture. These claims incorrectly conflate crafting historical memory with the fact that honorific statuary in public places signals the values of the modern-day community.

Memory of the Civil War and its aftermath will not suddenly be completely erased forever because statues are torn down, street names changed, buildings renamed, and the like. Culture will not be destroyed. (And as an aside, one should ask, “Who’s culture is being protected by protecting these monuments?”) The consequences of the Civil War, for good and ill, linger. Moreover, history’s memory is a lot longer than the beginning and ending of a statue, and history will continue to be useful as long as scholars, schools, and society have open and honest conversations about the past.

History is dynamic. Honorary statues are not. Communities change and values evolve and those who are honored yesterday may be disfavored tomorrow. Think about it this way–when the American Revolution concluded, as my friend and Marquette colleague Edward Fallone points out, no one objected that the history of British rule over the colonies would be erased forever when the statues of George III were torn down. Two hundred forty one years later, we literally still sing songs to sold-out audiences about the American Revolution. And Hamilton the Musical! still gets the facts right.

The communal choice of determining who is and who is not to be honored in the present day is a completely different conversation than one about the state of history. We shouldn’t confuse the two.

Who gets honored in community space ought to be a democratic conversation for each generation. Before the revolution, George III was King. After the Revolution, George III did not represent what America means anymore to the majority of Americans, so statues to him had to go. Similarly, if the representatives of the public and private will in twenty-first century America have arrived at the decision that the twentieth century images of those who committed treason and insurrection to protect nineteenth century chattel slavery no longer deserve public places of honor because those communities see themselves as dedicated to egalitarian democratic values, then it does not follow that for some sense of static history the statues should not come down. That would privilege the ideology of the nineteenth century over the reality of the voices of the twenty-first. (And, as evidence is showing, the statues at issue now went up precisely to signal the ascendancy of white supremacy, both in the 1920s at the height of Jim Crow and 1950s in mass resistance to the racial integration demanded by Brown v. Board of Education.)

One may object that the judgments of history are cruel. The vicissitudes of the future may be such that one day, Martin Luther King, Jr. memorials and street names may be arbitrarily torn down, that today’s egalitarian heroes may end up tomorrow’s villains. The people who win this argument today and see the statues torn down, the argument goes, will end up losing the argument tomorrow. That slippery-slope reasoning misses the point. To quote Hamilton the Musical, once you and I are extinct, neither of us has control over “who tells our story.” That’s just the reality. All we can do is live our lives now in a way that makes our values clear and be content to let history be the judge of that.

It is that values question we should really be asking. As far as I can tell, those who object to the removal of the statutes seem to be saying that those Confederate generals who defended slavery, secession, and white supremacy represent the values of a twenty-first century America that is becoming more egalitarian and diverse.

As to that, all I can say is those folks have a lot of convincing to do. I think I have made clear that I’m not persuaded by this. But, in the spirit of free speech, those who support the statues get to make the argument. And short of turning the protest to violence—which they did—they even get to light their citronella tiki-torches and march in Charlottesville, Boston, and wherever else. And those of us who disagree should do so, and peacefully point out the error of their ways. (Remember: the First Amendment may protect your right to object from state sanction, but it doesn’t protect you from the consequences of disagreement.)

But as the supporters of letting the legacy of the Confederacy continue to be central to our twenty-first century places of honor make that argument, my advice is to not overstate the claim by saying the removal of the Confederate generals’ statues erases history. That argument will likely cost you a lot of your audience. And they won’t forget.

Author: atibaellis

Law professor who writes on democracy, voting, and race. Expect blogs on voting and civil rights, racial justice, and the wholly random. Views are my own.

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