H2H: Scott: Should Confederate Statues Remain Standing?

This month marks the two-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally where white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, right-wing militiamen and other members of the alt-right joined forces to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park in Charlottesville, Virginia. Even after several violent assaults, the murder of a counter-protester and a lawsuit, the statue remains standing — a grim reminder of the Confederate legacy and the violent depths some will stoop to in their desire to preserve it.

This resurgence of open white supremacy in the United States is a mess of our own making. The installation of 1,500 monuments honoring the racist and treasonous leaders of the Confederacy is one of many ways this country has enabled their ideological descendants. By putting past traitors on a pedestal, we encourage modern rebels to betray the values of freedom and equality that so many Americans have fought and died to obtain.

“Both sides-ism” cannot be applied to the Civil War. This is not about Southern identity or federalism. It is about a society willing to commit treason in order to continue living off enslaved labor. The Confederacy cannot be separated from its desire to preserve slavery, nor can its leaders — no matter how conflicted they felt about raising arms against their fellow countrymen. Slavery is one of the deepest stains on American history. It is inappropriate to memorialize those who turned against their country to protect their ability to inflict human suffering and death for their own material gain.

The creation of monuments to honor these people is part of a dangerously effective effort by Confederate organizations like the United Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. They aim to rebrand their ancestors as brave Southern gentlemen who fought to protect their way of life from oppressive federal abuse rather than for their perceived right to uphold one of humanity’s worst institutions. This revisionist history muddies the waters, using monuments to legitimize a secessionist government whose agenda many Americans still cannot accurately name.

Education around the Civil War is severely lacking, and according to a 2018 report, “only 8 percent of U.S. high school seniors could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.” I remember watching my own younger sister flip through her teacher’s flashcards for their Civil War unit. Not only were the cards written using Taylor Swift photos and lyrics (still boggled by that choice of theme), but slavery was mentioned once and only in passing. The claimed reason for the Civil War was merely listed as states’ rights — ambiguous, blame-shifting spin straight from the post-Confederate handbook. John S. Mosby, an officer in the Confederate army, himself admitted in a letter that “I’ve always understood that we went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the north about. I’ve never heard of any other cause of quarrel than slavery.”

We must be diligent in our commitment to the truth. The Civil War can no longer be remembered as an ideological clash over federalism and states’ rights in which both sides were at fault. The Confederates should not stand on pedestals as their victims remain unmentioned, hidden from view without bronzed and dignified commemoration of their own.

It is strange that the U.S. is peppered with monuments honoring the traitors it defeated. Victorious countries generally do not devote so much real estate to those who killed their countrymen and ultimately lost the war. There are some areas in the South where it would appear that the Confederates were the true winners given the sheer number of monuments placed on public land.

Confederate statues and flags should never be displayed on state campuses and public property. These places belong to black citizens just as much as white ones, and these relics degrade these spaces with their presence. Black politicians, lawyers and constituents across America are asked to legislate, represent in court and vote beside remnants of an illegitimate government that fought to see them trafficked and disenfranchised. How can anyone expect a fair trial or equal representation in a place that honors the unjust? What message does this send to the children who play beneath the sculpted feet of slavers at their neighborhood park?

There are other alternatives to mourning war dead that do not involve hoisting up towering figures of slavers and traitors. While Southern slavery is uniquely American, we might take guidance from the decisions other countries have made as they tell their stories of past injustices and human rights violations. Germany has made great efforts to remember the civilians and victims of Nazi crimes, hardly mentioning and certainly never praising the defeated regime. Budapest’s Memento Park features 42 pieces of art from the Communist era, gathered together by architect Ákos Eleőd to encourage discussion about dictatorship and democracy. Estonia hosts a “statue graveyard” of fallen Soviet leaders, where crumpled figures and Lenin’s decapitated metal head were dumped to rest in the weeds.

Regardless of where they might someday be displayed, several decisions should be made regarding the future of these Confederate monuments. All monuments must be removed from public property. The majority of them should destroyed or placed in permanent storage, with only a few set aside for educational display. Limited educational displays might be featured in museums, but there must never be a museum dedicated to the Confederacy. Educational displays must never glorify the Confederacy in any way and must emphasize its victims instead.

The United States’ unwillingness to address its enslavement of human beings is one of the nation’s greatest mistakes. It allowed the gains of emancipation to be squashed by Jim Crow and currently facilitates discrimination against African Americans in employment, education and housing, an immobilizing racial wealth gap and their disproportionate mass incarceration. Toppling Confederate statues will not end racism in America, but it is one of many steps this country must take to recognize and reconcile its grievous past. Solutions for contemporary issues cannot be found if one side refuses to name the problem, and we must no longer allow our history to be dictated by the vanquished.

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