At around 8:30 in the morning on June 24, 2015, the Confederate flag disappeared from the Alabama capitol building. But it wasn’t an act of theft or vandalism.
The previous day, Alabama governor Robert Bentley had ordered the flag removed from the capitol grounds in response to Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine African American church goers in Charleston on June 17. In the weeks and months that followed, lawmakers across the South made the same decision. In December, 2015, the New Orleans City Council voted to remove four iconic monuments connected to the Confederacy and its violent aftermath.
On April 24, 2017, the Liberty Monument was the first to go. The obelisk was erected in 1891, and commemorates the 1874 uprising of white supremacists who resented Reconstruction, and wanted to overthrow the government. Several New Orleans police officers were killed in the fighting, some of whom were African American. The statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis came down two weeks later. In next few weeks, the city will also remove the statues of Confederate generals P.G.T Beauregard and Robert E. Lee.
The removal of these famous monuments has reinvigorated the long and intractable culture war surrounding Confederate symbols. Each side in this conflict holds a different set of beliefs about the Civil War and Reconstruction, which influence how they view the contemporary debate.
To those who believe the war was fought over slavery, the Confederate flag and monuments to Confederate generals and politicians are symbols of oppression and racism, and should be removed from public spaces. On the other side of the battle line are adherents to various strains of lost cause ideology and white nationalism including, at the most extreme pole, the notable white supremacists David Duke and Richard Spencer. This small but vocal group has gone to provocative lengths to get their point across, and their demonstrations have drawn comparisons to early-twentieth century Klan rallies.
But not everyone who supports preserving Confederate monuments is a white supremacist or a lost causer. Many acknowledge the role slavery played in the Civil War, and focus instead on the educational value of Confederate monuments and symbols. New Orleans native Frank B. Stewart expressed this perspective in an open letter to mayor Mitch Landrieu. “Should the pyramids be destroyed, since they were built entirely from slave labor? What about the Roman Coliseum? It was built by slaves…but it still stands today and we learn so much from seeing it.”
This is a false equivalency. Racism is not ancient history like the Egyptian or Roman empires. It’s a very real force that impacts the lives of millions of Americans every day. Thus, Confederate monuments and symbols are not “relics of a bygone era,” but “indicators of the one we’re still living in.” The Liberty Monument does not simply represent a historical injustice from which American society has learned and grown, but a very current injustice that large portions of white society still do not acknowledge.
However, there is an element of truth in Stewart’s argument. Monuments do have important educational value. Jelani Cobb emphasized this point in a New Yorker opinion piece published last week. If every vestige of the South’s Confederate and Jim Crow past is wiped away, “future generations may know little about the acts of inhumanity that took place in the South.”
As a society, we should not try to expunge the painful parts of history from our collective memory. Rather, we must engage them frankly and earnestly, and ensure that future generations do the same. Monuments help us accomplish this by providing physical reminders of important historical events, and insights into how later generations interpreted these events.
So, yes. Statues of Confederate generals and politicians have value in the twenty-first century. But the physical location of these monuments impacts their meaning, and can limit their effectiveness as educational tools. Therefore, they belong in museums, not parks or city squares.
In the middle of downtown New Orleans, with little if any context, the Liberty Monument can only be interpreted as a glorification of white supremacy and racial violence. But behind protective glass in a museum, the monument would communicate a need for reflection, and a sense that the monument’s meaning is contested. Furthermore, interpretive museum labels would provide important information about the aftermath of the Civil War, and the long road to justice and equality that followed. By framing the monument in this way, a museum could encourage visitors to think critically about historical and contemporary issues of race in American society.
This might seem like a simplistic solution. But we shouldn’t discount the important role space plays in forming and communicating meaning. Moving Confederate monuments from parks and city squares to museums is a small step that would achieve a significant goal.
In the next few days, P.G.T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee will lose their prominent positions in downtown New Orleans. Hopefully, they will be moved to museums where they can spur future generations to critically examine America’s painful and complicated history, and inspire them to create a better future.
As the culture war continues, many may wonder whether the fight is worth it. Is arguing over monuments a wise use of our time? Or is it just a distraction from more pressing issues of racism and inequality in American society? Should we be feuding over statues when so many African American men are being killed and brutalized by police every day? This either/or attitude is naive, since advocating for the removal of the Confederate flag from a public building does not diminish one’s ability to fight for civil rights legislation. To the contrary, the conviction that Confederate symbols don’t belong in places of honor indicates an understanding of American history, and an awareness of contemporary race relations in American society.
And so, we should continue to fight.
The many monuments to our not-so-heroic past are powerful conduits for conversation, and important (albeit painful) reminders of how far we’ve evolved as a species. But they belong in museums. Not the city square.