He put up the Lee Monument, and should the time come, he’ll be there to take it down.”
- John Mitchell Jr.
It was black men that the editor of Richmond’s “The Richmond Planet” was referring to. The image of free black bodies laboring to assemble the statues of those who fought to oppress them was a powerful image for me. Their hands, which now worked to earn wages, were employed in the work of raising the monuments of men who sought to keep them in chains.
In the discussions about the removals of Confederate monuments, I've heard many different reasons from people as to what they mean and why they should be left up, but not many about how African-Americans felt and perceived these statues when they were raised.
The first post was written more as an appeal from a personal perspective to take down the Confederate statues. I wouldn’t change anything about that post, but I want to follow up with more thought behind why I believe the monuments should be removed. Firstly, I understand that legally they cannot be moved by the authorities of the locality. Virginia law prohibits monuments from being moved, even by those who erect them. I'm not suggesting a passionate, emotionally fueled, yet illegal, tearing down of monuments everywhere. I understand there's a process and I believe it should begin now.
Secondly, I understand that the monuments mean different things to different people, and therefore the thought of removing them may carry many different implications for those who perceive these monuments in a particular way. I've had several conversations with supporters of the monuments, descendants of confederates, and opponents of the monuments and I am aware of the sensitivity that surrounds these statues. This is simply my opinion and I respect the opinions of others on this subject, even though I may disagree.
Lastly, I understand the notion that some have put forth that to take down Confederate monuments is to erase history. I have several reasons why I disagree with that notion - some listed here - and on the contrary, I actually believe that the monuments' remaining in place actually erases certain untold historical narratives.
Monuments Tell a Story. But Whose?
Virginia’s monuments are among a few hundred historical markers and places that point to the era that is defined by the Confederacy. From birthplaces to battlefields, to historical churches and corporations, the history of the Confederacy is still very much prevalent in Virginia. The major difference between Confederate statues and historical birthplaces, grave sites, battlefields, and churches is that the latter are somewhat neutral in their reporting of the historical facts. These things remain fixed pieces of historical layers that are covered up over time in the progression of a society. To see them is to be informed or reminded of something. A battlefield can report a win or a loss; a birthplace can record the good and not-so-good facts of a person’s life; and a gravesite can serve as a perpetual commemoration or condemnation of that person’s life whoever they might be. This applies to Nazi soldiers, Confederate generals, wicked despots, and the most immoral of individuals. To acknowledge these kind of landmarks is to allow the historical narrative to speak for itself and allow its listeners to reflect and learn.
On the contrary, a monument goes further in its efforts to speak about historical narratives. By definition, a monument is “a statue, building, or other structure erected to commemorate a famous or notable person or event.” Monuments are meant for commemoration, but the question is what or who is being commemorated? One could make the argument that the individuals whose edifices are on the statues are being commemorated: Robert E. Lee, JEB Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Matthew Fontaine Maury, and Stonewall Jackson, and consequently its their individual lives that are being commemorated. In defense of this position, a statue of Arthur Ashe is included amongst these other statues in Richmond as well, put up for his being a Richmond native and for his outstanding tennis career; but aside from Ashe, what do each of these historical figures have in common? They were all soldiers or military leaders within the Confederacy. Jackson and Lee are pictured mounted upon their horses in their Confederate uniforms. Maury was a soldier and a scientist, and Jefferson Davis was a soldier and the president of the Confederate States of America. If these statues were simply commemorations of Southern culture/history or individuals that contributed for the overall benefit of society or the world, should they not include other prominent figures of Southern culture? Only Matthew Fontaine Maury comes close considering the variety of fields in which contributed.
Instead, each of these statues, minus Ashe, are all linked to the Confederacy, a government that was formed on and around the basis of the preservation and protection of the institution of racialized slavery. Regardless of these individuals' personal views on slavery (some have attempted to defend Lee’s *milder* views on the institution of slavery or A.P. Hill’s not owning any slaves), what speaks louder, in my perspective and in the perspective of many African-Americans who oppose these monuments, is these individuals' voluntary commitment to a government that was built on the premise that African peoples were morally, spiritually, and physically inferior to whites and therefore should be forever subjected to them in the basest and most immoral form of servitude. Furthermore, under the constitution of the CSA (Confederate States of America), slavery within this government could never be abolished but forever protected and practiced.
In his Cornerstone Speech, Vice President of the CSA, Alexander Stephens stated,
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornerstone_Speech
At the bedrock of the Confederacy was the pride of being the first civilization that would be built upon racial supremacy, particularly white supremacy. This is what these monuments represent and this is what the Confederate flag represents, namely, terrorism and racial superiority. When these symbols (the uniforms, the generals mounted on their horses, the flag) are erected by and protected by local and federal governments, it communicates a commemoration not of the neutral narrative of history in allowing it to tell its dark truths, but a specific honoring and preservation of what could have been. These monuments stand as if victory was achieved by the Confederacy. And maybe they simply communicate that a different kind of victory actually was achieved in their loss, a kind of racial victory that reared its head in the southern policies and laws of segregation and discrimination that surfaced during the establishment of these statues.
It would be one thing to commemorate the personal lives of these figures as sons, husbands, fathers, grandfathers, and benefactors of society as a whole - regardless of their personal beliefs. This can be carried out in museums, birthplaces, historical landmarks, and even their names being on *certain* schools, highways, and military bases (as they already are). It is another thing altogether to literally raise these individuals up in honor particularly for what they fought to preserve. This is unacceptable and disrespectful to the many peoples whom they as a government participated in oppressing, terrorizing, and murdering.
In addition to this, many of these statues were erected not proactively, but reactively, not directly after the Civil War loss, but during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras when discriminatory laws and policies were being rapidly put in place to disenfranchise, segregate, and oppress, then-liberated African-Americans. I would argue that whatever these monuments mean to people, particularly advocates of the monuments in today’s context, it is subjective, for many, to the original purposes for these statues being erected. Some have suggested that these monuments could be redeemable in this sense, serving another or better purpose than its creators intended. But what did these monuments mean to those who built them and to those who watched as the images of their former, now defeated, enemies had become resurrected? What did these monuments mean to the African-Americans of those eras? Do their original purposes in raising these statues have any implications on today's society?
Two Radically Different Perspectives
In my own city, Richmond, Virginia, a great processional with fireworks and elegant balls was held when Robert E. Lee’s statue was unveiled. The two most prominent newspapers of the city took out full page advertisements to celebrate the statues and the historical figures they represented. One of them, The Times wrote this in commemoration,
The work of noble men and patriotic women is ended, and they can now point with pride in the majestic memorial in granite and bronze, and tell their children in seeking human dignity, bravery, love of truth and devotion to duty and duty and affection for country, to model their lives as closely upon the lines laid down by Lee as best means of obtaining their ambition.
On the contrary, the city’s black newspaper, The Richmond Planet, recorded an uneventful tone in its reporting of the unveiling. John Mitchell, Jr. the editor of the Planet, stated this at the end of the brief (less than half a column) article about the monument,
The south may revere the memory of its chieftains. It takes the wrong steps in so doing, and proceeds to go too far in every similar celebration. It serves to retard its progress in the country and forges heavier chains with which to be bound.”
To see more of what the Richmond Planet and other black newspapers recorded about the day when Lee’s statue was raised, check out this article at Fit to Print
Just south of Virginia, in North Carolina, Julian Carr, an industrialist and white supremacist who was invited to speak during the unveiling of a monument at the University of North Carolina stated this,
“The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo-Saxon race in the South. - - When “the bottom rail was on top” all over the Southern states, and to-day, as a consequence, the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States - - Praise God.” https://www.scribd.com/document/356954421/Julian-Carr-1913-Silent-Sam-Dedication-Speech
Right after this, Carr recounted a personal event that occurred nearly 3 months after the surrender at Appomattox; his beating and “horse -whipping” a “negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds”.
Carr later stated this,
That for which they battled in memory of whom this monument is reared, as well as for the survivors of that bloody drama, was not achieved. But the cause for which they fought is not lost. It can never be, never will be lost while it is enshrined in the hearts of the people of the South…”
These two very different perspectives about the Confederate monuments display two different Americas. On one end there is the defeated America, one that was reeling from a great wound and was now fervently motivated to protect that which became known as "The Lost Cause". On the other end, there is the deflated America, those former slaves and their descendants who had begun to experience the light of freedom only to be overshadowed and continuously reminded of the dark past from which they were barely given the basic rights they had deserved for centuries. These two realities collided in the raising up of these statues.
This is the main reason why I would argue that the Confederate monuments need to be taken down. They continually cast a shadow which has become double edged in its implications on the people of this city and many others. They cast a dark shadow of nostalgia, causing some to harbor age old wounds from over a century ago to the hindrance of genuine discussion and progress. Again, for others the dark shadow that is cast is one of racism that shows itself in the past and present local and federal policies that have segregated and discriminated against people of color. Whereas the Confederacy has died in power, its presence is still acknowledged in the subtle preservation of its values that all people are not created equal. Its presence is symbolically promoted in the commemoration of these monuments.
I can understand wanting to honor ancestors as individuals who lived and even died for their convictions. I believe that, in itself, can empower us presently to live with a sense of worth and value in the things we commit ourselves to. But honoring the memory of individual ancestors can be done without agreeing with or condoning their values or convictions. It can be done without preserving the symbols of the corrupt systems that they established or participated in. Honoring our ancestors is allowing history to tell its story about them while we appreciate their noble contributions and reflect on or renounce their mistakes and errors so as not to repeat them. Raising a statue to honor those who came before particularly for their sinful and unsuccessful endeavors is wrong.
The Confederate monuments, wherever they stand, do not simply represent the heritage of a people who live in the South. They represent a heritage of power and purity over and above all other peoples and it is this for which these statues are raised and it is what they will always represent. If the South is to ever remove from itself the stain of racism and racial tyranny and oppression both from the past and the present, steps for progress must be made, and they have to some extent. But one of the greatest visible signs of the destruction of white supremacy and superiority is removing the elevated monuments which encapsulate these beliefs. Although many people are against the beliefs, methods, and rhetoric of white supremacists, their (white supremacists) rallying around these monuments is certainly nothing new or alarming. In spite of the well intentioned "heritage-not-hate" slogan that is uttered from the mouths of many genuine well-meaning people, the fingerprints of white supremacy have always covered these monuments (and they always will) ...although it was the actual hands of oppressed and marginalized black people that unjustly labored to assemble the stone images of their oppressors. It was them who would subsequently suffer under the reign of systemic oppression that came from the very same people that paraded through the streets in celebration of these monuments .
I agree with John Mitchell Jr.; the black men and women who raised these statues, although gone, can be present through the free hands of their descendants - joined with the hands of many others - to take these monuments down. I pray the time is now.
This article from Vox contains some helpful links on the discussion along with more context surrounding the establishment of some of the monuments