Moving Monuments Less and Less Like Moving Mountains

Workers prepare to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans, LA. (Photo by Infrogmation via Flickr)

Those who find themselves living in the American South quickly become familiar with what at first may seem an unusual sight: statues and memorials on public land that glorify the Confederacy. As a Southern native this is something I’ve long been accustomed to, albeit in an unsettling way. There have been times in the recent past when the American public has debated what precisely we should do with these monuments; as of late this debate has ramped up considerably and extends all the way to the White House.

President Donald J. Trump is an avid defender and romanticizer not only of Confederate statues but of military bases named for Confederate generals. Examples include my birthplace—Fort Bragg, North Carolina, named for General Braxton Bragg—and Fort Benning on the Alabama-Georgia border, named for General Henry L. Benning. The president has repeatedly pushed back against those who even discuss the possibility of changing the names of these military bases.

“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children,” he said on July 4 before a crowd of thousands at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

Indeed, the president has vowed to veto the National Defense Authorization Act, House and Senate versions of which passed overwhelmingly at the end of July. The bipartisan Senate version to fund the military, which easily passed 86-14, has a provision that would authorize the renaming of bases named after Confederate leaders. The provision was written by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and though some Republicans had publicly joined the president in proclaiming that they wouldn’t support efforts to rename bases, it evidently wasn’t enough to stop them from voting for the bill. (A conference committee will meet this fall to combine both versions into one.)

Joining the president in persistently refusing to consider changing the names of bases are organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. That said, an important question remains: What are the views of the American people?

Over the last few years views have been gradually shifting toward support for doing away with monuments to the leaders of the Confederacy. Despite this general trend, it was only as recently as June of 2020 that polls show the majority of the American public support doing so. A Quinnipiac University poll published in mid-June reported that 52 percent support removing Confederate statues from public spaces, a considerable nineteen-point shift from August of 2017. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that the naming of military bases after Confederate leaders is a more institutional and government-led white-washing and normalizing of the Confederacy, poll participants were split 47-47 percent on that issue.

Living in the South, one often hears a number of defenses from those who support the continued existence of Confederate monuments and statues. Before we discuss those defenses, here are some key points to consider when having this debate: the first is that it may be difficult to convince someone to destroy a monument like this, which is one reason why many people aren’t advocating for their destruction but rather their relocation to a private individual’s or organization’s care. This distinction matters, and many people who feel strongly about this topic may not realize that’s what’s being suggested.

Another important point is that oftentimes monuments and statues that glorify the legacy of the Confederacy don’t portray or lionize ordinary Confederate soldiers. They aren’t intended to memorialize someone’s working-class ancestor who fought for the South but men who stood at the top of a system that quite literally profited off the enslavement of Black men, women, and children. Knowing specific monuments and using them as a stepping-off point to discuss the harms in white-washing the Confederacy is a great way to be able to make a meaningful case to those who will listen.

The final key point to consider is that these monuments are often maintained through taxpayer dollars. It isn’t just people who support these statues who care for them, it’s everyone who lives in the area close to the monuments who inadvertently has to fund their upkeep. On some level just about anybody could understand someone disliking their taxpayer dollars funding or caring for something they oppose, and so raising this argument may garner a bit more empathy for your point of view.

One argument the supporters of Confederate statues and monuments often make is that renaming bases, removing symbols, and reexamining our nation’s white-washing of the Confederacy is, as Trump said at Mount Rushmore, an attempt to destroy our history. This argument may strike some of us as silly, but it offers a good chance to have a real conversation about the history of the Confederacy and the history of white supremacy in this country.

It’s worth asking: How many of these monuments and symbols actually educate the public about the Confederacy? In Raleigh, North Carolina, there’s a Confederate monument not far from the state capitol building. This monument has a simple plaque that reads “To Our Confederate Dead.” That barely contextualizes the monument and gives visitors no information about the men from North Carolina who fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. It should be uncontroversial for someone to ask for signage that contextualizes both the historical period memorialized and also those whom the monuments were built to honor.

Incidentally, this week Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser released a report by the DC Facilities and Commemorative Expressions (DCFACES) Working Group that recommends removing certain names from public property—such as with schools named for figures who enslaved others or supported eugenics—or adding context to existing monuments, such as a plague at the Jefferson Memorial acknowledging that he and other founders were enslavers.

This approach may be especially compelling for those who feel that the monuments were built with good intentions and allow opportunities for people to truly understand the human cost of the war. It’s also worth asking proponents of this idea how they feel about history education and what they would like to do to ensure that people of all ages have opportunities to learn about the Civil War in meaningful ways beyond the continued existence of public monuments.

Another argument frequently invoked in this debate is the idea that the survivors of the Civil War, or at least their loved ones, were the ones who erected statues and monuments in its aftermath. This is an argument that has been debunked over and over. The few statues built in the immediate wake of the war were often meant to honor all of the fallen Confederate soldiers, but newer statues were built with a far more targeted and problematic purpose: to honor specific leaders of the Confederacy. It’s one thing to honor all of the soldiers who died in what some may view as a “defense of their home” but another thing altogether to try and memorialize specific leaders of an institution that upheld the practice of slavery.

The existence, in the public sphere, of Confederate monuments and military bases named for Confederate generals will undoubtedly continue to generate discussion, even as some armed citizens and militia-like groups shift from protecting statues to protecting businesses—as in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two and wounded a third protester in Kenosha, Wisconsin—or their own property, like the McCloskeys of St. Louis, Missouri, who pointed guns at Black Lives Matter supporters marching through their neighborhood.

How do you approach these sorts of conversations? What sort of arguments do you hear? Are there any that are especially common or especially frustrating for you? Living in the South, systemic racism and the connection to the Confederacy is an exhausting topic to navigate. I hope the arguments I’ve discussed and tips I’ve provided help you navigate this topic skillfully and successfully.