August 23, 2017

Should We Tear Down Monuments to Our Painful Confederate Past?

Georgia Report

The Civil War is a war that never ends, much to our dismay.

The latest iteration of the conflict is over the statues erected in many towns and cities to honor the Confederate dead and their generals—despite the fact that these people were traitors who tried to bring about a violent overthrow of the United States government. President Donald Trump loves these statues and says they are “beautiful.” There are many others who don’t share that opinion, however, and so the statues are coming down, one by one.

In Durham, NC, protesters last week pulled down a statue of a Confederate soldier erected outside the county courthouse in 1924. Eight people were arrested, but more than 200 tried to confess to the crime. Two days later, a statue of Robert E. Lee was removed from the Duke University chapel after it had been damaged and defaced by protesters. In Maryland, a statue of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, who wrote the infamous Dred Scott decision upholding slavery, was removed from the grounds of the Maryland State House. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said that removing the statue was "the right thing to do."

Another Republican governor, Georgia’s Nathan Deal, was ahead of the curve when it came to moving statues celebrating a shameful past. For years, a likeness of U.S. Sen. Tom Watson stood in front of the west side of the state capitol building, an affront to civil rights groups because of Watson’s virulent racism and anti-Semitism during his political career. When the west steps of the capitol were being rebuilt in the fall of 2013, Deal took advantage of the construction project to have the Watson statue moved overnight to a spot across the street and nearly out of sight of the capitol. It has stayed there ever since.

Deal supported and will soon oversee the unveiling of a new statue on the capitol grounds honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. White nationalists and neo-Nazis will surely defame Deal for taking these actions, but good-hearted people will applaud him for it.

Georgia, of course, still is home to the largest Confederate memorial of them all, the carvings at Stone Mountain. Whether you like the memorial or hate it, it is going to stay in place because state law prohibits its alteration or removal. That law probably won’t be repealed until Georgia voters elect a Democratic governor and a Democratic-controlled legislature—something we are not likely to see for a while.

Perhaps we should leave the last words on this emotional issue to the descendants of two Confederate generals whose statues still remain in many public places. Robert E. Lee V, the great-great grandson of Robert E. Lee, told CNN that it would be "appropriate" to move Confederate statues to museums. "Eventually, someone is going to have to make a decision, and if that's the local lawmaker, so be it," Lee said. "But we have to be able to have that conversation without all of the hatred and the violence. And if they choose to take those statues down, fine."

William Jackson Christian and Warren Edmund Christian, the great-great grandsons of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, wrote a letter to the mayor of Richmond, Va. asking for the removal of all Confederate statues along the city’s Monument Avenue. Their letter said: “They are overt symbols of racism and white supremacy, and the time is long overdue for them to depart from public display… While we do not purport to speak for all of Stonewall’s kin, our sense of justice leads us to believe that removing the Stonewall statue and other monuments should be part of a larger project of actively mending the racial disparities that hundreds of years of white supremacy have wrought.

“We hope other descendants of Confederate generals will stand with us.”