Historic Statue Removal – Top 3 Pros & Cons

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An 1884 Confederate monument to General Robert E. Lee is removed from Lee Circle in New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 19, 2017.
Source: Abdazizar. “The Confederate Monument to Robert E. Lee Is Removed from Its Perch,” Creative Commons, May 19, 2017

While the debate whether Confederate statues should be taken down has been gaining momentum for years, the issue gained widespread attention after the June 17, 2015, mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. [1] The shooter was said to have glorified the Confederate South, posing in Facebook photos with the Battle Flag of the Northern Virginia Army (also known now as the “Confederate flag,” though it never represented the Confederate States) and touring historical Confederate locations before the shooting. [2] [3] [4]

The issue rose to prominence again in 2017 after an Aug. 12 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned violent and deadly. The rally protested the proposed removal of statues of Confederate Army Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. [5]

The Virginia statues still stood amid the protests following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, though they were tagged with graffiti. During the global Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, calls to take down the statues were met with citizens not only actively damaging or removing statues of Confederate figures, but targeting statues of slave-holding Founding Fathers in general, as well as historic monuments to Abraham Lincoln and abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass. [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13]

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 59 Confederate statues and nine markers or plaques were removed from public land in 19 US states between June 17, 2015 and July 6, 2020. At last count, 754 Confederate monuments remain on public land across 26 states, including 230 statues of Robert E. Lee. [14]

Should Historic Statues Be Taken Down?

Pro 1

The statues misrepresent history, and glorify people who perpetuated slavery, attempted secession from United States, and lost the Civil War.

When 11 Southern states seceded from the Union in 1861, they were very clear that the reason was the impending abolition of slavery. Mississippi’s secession declaration states, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization… There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.” [15] [16]

However, after the Confederate States lost the Civil War, the South revised history. The states declared they had not been fighting to preserve slavery and, instead, “fashioned a set of ideas and arguments that they were fighting to hold back the massive industrialization of America, they were trying to preserve rural agrarian civilization,” according to David W. Blight, PhD, American History Professor at Yale University. [17] [18] The “Lost Cause” mythology was used to continue the idea that black people needed to be subjugated for their own good and as justification for Jim Crow laws. Erecting statues to the lost heroes of the Lost Cause was part of the campaign to revise history. [14] [17]

Other statues of historic figures, such as slave-owning presidents or imperialists like Christopher Columbus, promote similar oppressive and revisionist messages. Glenn Foster, founder of The Freedom Neighborhood, stated of the Emancipation Memorial, which depicts Lincoln over a kneeling freed slave, “When I look at that statue, I’m reminded my freedom and my liberation is only dictated by white peoples’ terms. We’re trying to let the government know we’re not going to wait any longer for our freedom to happen.” [19] Celebrations of Columbus have long been criticized due to his colonization and genocide of Indigenous people, as well as the false narrative that he discovered America when he never set foot on North America. [20] [21] These statues, like their Confederate counterparts, serve a revisionist purpose, allowing people to maintain a racist ideology.

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Pro 2

The statues are a painful reminder of past and present institutionalized racism in the United States.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., PhD, Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, notes that “enduringly charged symbols of the former Confederacy… [add] to our fears that, instead of embracing the promise of democracy in a diverse society, some want to return us to a far more restrictive time, when freedom was circumscribed by race.” [22]

“We can’t get to learning from our history if we keep accepting that racism should be celebrated in American history,” according to Khalil Gibran Muhammad, PhD, Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard University [1]

The statues were built to honor and enforce white supremacist views, and the intent or damaging effect have not been erased by time.

A black resident of Richmond, Virginia, Tommye Finley, remarked of the city’s Monument Avenue, which is home to five Confederate statues, “When I first moved here from Mississippi, I thought these statues were ridiculous. Why build a street for losers?… Psychologically, it’s perpetuating a system. It’s saying, ‘We still have the upper hand.’” [23]

Finley hit not only on the current psychological impact of the statues, but also on the intended historical impact. As James Grossman, PhD, Executive Director of the American Historical Association, notes, “It’s not just that the statues represent white supremacy, but the purpose of building the statues was the perpetuation of white supremacy. This is why they put them up in the first place; to affirm the centrality of white supremacy to Southern culture.” [1]

Because the statues were intended to promote white supremacy, Richard Rose, President of Atlanta’s NAACP, argues, “You can’t contextualize racism or compromise on racism.” He states that the contextualization plaques added to Atlanta’s Confederate statues “establish that racism is valid.” [24]

The statues still appeal to white supremacists, as demonstrated by the 2017 rally to defend the Lee and Jackson statues in Virginia and in Dylan Roof’s 2015 pre-massacre tour of plantations and a Confederate museum. [4]

Monuments are ultimately about which values we want to honor and put on public display. [23] For example, the Confederate statues in the Capitol building “should embody our highest ideals as Americans, expressing who we are and who we aspire to be as a nation. Monuments to men who advocated cruelty and barbarism to achieve such a plainly racist end are a grotesque affront to these ideals. Their statues pay homage to hate, not heritage. They must be removed,” according to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). [25]

Further, Americans pay to have Confederate statues and the associated values on display. A 2018 investigation published in the Smithsonian Magazine found that over the prior ten years at least $40 million in taxpayer dollars were allocated for Confederate statues, other monuments, and heritage organizations. [4]

As Karen Cox, PhD, Historian of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, concludes, “The state is giving the stamp of approval to these Lost Cause ideas, and the money is a symbol of that approval. What does that say to black citizens of the state, or other citizens, or to younger generations?” [4]

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Pro 3

There are many other people who could be represented by statues who would better represent the historical progress and diversity of the country.

Of about 5,193 public statues of people in the United States, only 394 are of women, and far fewer are of black Americans or other people of color. [26]

George Gerbner, PhD, and Larry Gross coined the term “symbolic annihilation” in 1976 to describe the lack of representation of a group of people. Symbolic annihilation can result in society valuing groups of people less and in internalized negativity among those groups. [27] [28] Statues celebrating the diversity of the country could help remedy symbolic annihilation of black Americans, women, and other groups.

A petition in Tennessee gained 22,736 signatures (and counting as of July 8, 2020) to replace all Confederate statues in the state, including the statue of Confederate Army General and KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest that stands in the state’s capitol building, with statues of Dolly Parton. [29] [30]

Walmart donated $100,000 to help Arkansas replace statues of Confederate sympathizers Governor James P. Clarke and attorney Uriah Rose in the US Capitol, with statues of Johnny Cash and civil rights pioneer Daisy Bates. [31]

In Louisville, a statue of Confederate soldier John Breckinridge Castleman was removed. Residents offered replacement suggestions ranging from boxer Muhammed Ali to writer Wendell Berry. [26] A monument to the victims of slavery has also been suggested. [32]

Statues could be built to honor George Washington Carver, Madame CJ Walker, Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Owens, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ruby Bridges, Mae Jemison, Charles Richard Drew, Mary Jackson, and countless others.

Beyond building monuments to honor black Americans, monuments could employ and elevate living black artists, such as Kehinde Wiley, whose 2019 “Rumors of War” statue depicts a black man on horseback in a pose reminiscent of statues of Robert E. Lee. [32] [33]

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Con 1

The statues represent the country’s history, no matter how complicated. Taking them down is to censor, whitewash, and potentially forget that history.

Of the calls to take down Confederate monuments, President Donald Trump stated, “This cruel campaign of censorship and exclusion violates everything we hold dear as Americans. They want to demolish our heritage so they can impose a new oppressive regime in its place.” [9] Trump argued the plight to save the statues “is a battle to save the Heritage, History, and Greatness of our Country!” [34]

Citizens of the United States have the right to hold controversial opinions and build statues to honor their beliefs. The First Amendment protects everyone’s speech, not just the speech approved by the majority. [35]

The history of the United States is multi-layered, complicated, and ever-evolving. Those who disagree with the beliefs upheld by the statues should work to understand the history these monuments represent, rather than trying to simply remove them and the history from sight.

John Daniel Davidson, Political Editor at The Federalist, explained, “That they were wrong about slavery does not excuse us today from the burden of trying to understand what motivated them to fight—and what motivated them and their families to undertake a flurry of monument-building decades later as the surviving veterans began to die off… A more mature society would recognize that the past is always with you and must always be kept in mind. There’s a reason Christians in Rome didn’t topple all the pagan statues and buildings in the city, or raze the Colosseum.” [36]

Each Confederate monument is a reminder not only of the Civil War and the end of slavery, but the assertion of the federal government’s dominance over states’ rights, as well as the persistence of systemic racism. [37]

Lawrence A. Kuznar, PhD, Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne, states, “removing Confederate statues amounts to whitewashing our history, turning our heads away from the inconvenient truths of our past. We should let them stand and use them to remind ourselves of what we are and are not, the cost our forebears paid for our freedom and to educate our children.” [38]

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Con 2

Removing statues is a slippery slope that could lead to the brash removal of monuments to any slightly problematic person.

During the protests following the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, many Confederate statues were damaged or toppled, as were statues of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ulysses S. Grant. [10] [11] [12]

Washington, Jefferson, and Grant had undeniable ties to slavery. Washington owned over 300, Jefferson over 600, and Grant worked on his wife’s family plantation and inherited one slave upon his father-in-law’s death. [39] [40] [41]

However, Washington led the Continental Army to victory over the British, held together the country as the first President over two terms, resisted calls to become King of the country, and, in his will, freed his slaves upon his wife’s death. [42]

Jefferson is the author of two of our most dear principles as a country: equality and religious freedom. He was also an abolitionist, though a hypocritical and pragmatic one who understood the country would not give up slavery so easily. While he hoped the next generation would abolish slavery, he wrote in 1820 that maintaining the institution of slavery was like holding “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” [40]

Grant came from an abolitionist family, freed the one slave he owned in 1859, supported black enlisted Army men, led the Union Army in the Civil War to abolish slavery, and was endorsed by Frederick Douglass for president. [41]

Should we not honor the contributions of Washington, Jefferson, and Grant to the United States because they owned slaves, as did many men of their standing at the time, even though they struggled with the institution?

Annette Gordon-Reed, JD, Professor of American Legal History at Harvard University, explained, “There is an important difference between helping to create the United States and trying to destroy it. Both Washington and Jefferson were critical to the formation of the country and to the shaping of it in its early years… No one puts a monument up to Washington or Jefferson to promote slavery… I think on these two, Washington and Jefferson, in particular, you take the bitter with sweet. The main duty is not to hide the bitter parts.” [43]

Eight US presidents owned slaves while in office, with an additional four owning slaves while not in office. [44] Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the white suffragists purposefully excluded black women. [45] [46] Martin Luther King, Jr. regularly cheated on his wife. [47] Do we exclude the achievements of these figures from public display because they displayed controversial behavior? Where do we draw a line? Do we protect Confederate graves and battlefields? [48] Or should those also be destroyed? The line is subjective, difficult to draw, and easy to reinterpret, leaving no memorial protected.

The slippery slope goes further, allowing anyone to destroy any statue they disagree with. For example, a statue of black abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass was damaged over the July 4, 2020 weekend in Rochester, New York. [9] And a statue of black tennis star and Civil Rights activist Arthur Ashe was tagged with “white lives matter” graffiti in Richmond, Virginia. [49]

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Con 3

The statues do not cause racism and could be used to fight racism if put into historical context.

Author Sophia A. Nelson, JD, who notes she is the granddaughter of a slave, states that she does not ”fear 150-year-old statues of old dead white men.” Nelson argues that her classmates at Washington & Lee University “didn’t hate [black students] because there were statues of Robert E. Lee or George Washington (our nation’s first President and a slave owner) on campus. They didn’t like having black classmates because they had racist hearts. They honored racial prejudice. They harbored cultural bias. That, my friends, is what we must work toward eradicating.” [50]

Ellis Cose, Senior Fellow at the ACLU, states that the statues should remain, with “plaques and other material in place that point out that these men were traitors, not American heroes, and that their ugly legacy haunts us still. In illuminating how vulnerable Americans have long been to ugly racial appeals, and how willfully blind we have been to racial injustice, those statues could remind us of the catastrophic consequences of not putting bigotry aside.” [51]

Some jurisdictions have chosen to put explanatory plaques beside Confederate monuments to teach a more complete history. The plaques can not only detail the history of slavery and the Civil War, but also the white segregationist history that promoted the building of such statues to promote the revisionist Lost Cause history. [52]

Next to the Peace Monument in Atlanta, Georgia, a plaque reads, “This monument should no longer stand as a memorial to white brotherhood; rather, it should be seen as an artifact representing a shared history in which millions of Americans were denied civil and human rights.” [24]

Sheffield Hale, JD, President and Chief Executive of the Atlanta History Center, stated of the plaque, “I do think it gives [people] a starting point, which is sorely needed right now, in our society, as a way to deal with contentious issues. Let’s argue about the facts, let’s put them down on paper – or on a marker – and have a conversation about them.” [24]

Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor, who disagrees with taking down the statues, warned against being distracted by the simple, concrete action of taking down statues: “We don’t want to leave this so that people looking back in 50 years will say: you know, they took the statues down, why didn’t they do something about racism?” [53]

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Discussion Questions

  1. Should historic statues be taken down? Explain your answer with examples and reasoning.
  2. Do the statues represent or misrepresent the country’s history? How?
  3. Regardless of whether historic statues are removed or remain, what sort of statues, memorials, or other art would you like to see in public spaces? Explain your answers.

Sources:

1. Jasmine Aguilera, “Confederate Statues Are Being Removed amid Protests over George Floyd's Death. Here's What to Know,” time.com, June 24, 2020
2. Jack Jenkins, “How the Charleston Shooting Is Linked to the Confederate Flag, According to A South Carolinian,” thinkprogress.org, June 19, 2015
3. Amanda Holpuch, Ed Pilkington, and Oliver Laughland, “Charleston Shooting: Confederate Flag at Heart of Growing Political Storm,” theguardian.com, June 20, 2015
4. Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler, “The Costs of the Confederacy,” smithsonianmag.com, Dec 2018
5. New York Times, “From 2017: Confederate Monuments Are Coming down dcross the United States. Here’s a List.,” nytimes.com, Aug. 28, 2017
6. Richard Allen Greene, “King Leopold II Statues Are Being Removed in Belgium. Who Was He?,” cnn.com, June 11, 2020
7. CBS News, “Protesters in England Topple Statue of Slave Trader Edward Colston into Harbor,” cbsnews.com, June 7, 2020
8. Gino Spocchia, “Christopher Columbus Statue Torn Down, Set on Fire and Tossed in Lake by Anti-Racism Protesters in Virginia,” independent.co.uk, June 10, 2020
9. Scottie Andrew and Anna Sturla, “A Statue of Frederick Douglass Was Toppled over the Fourth of July Weekend, the Anniversary of His Famous Speech,” cnn.com, July 6, 2020
10. Phil Davis, “George Washington Monument in Druid Hill Park Spray-Painted with ‘Destroy Racists,’ Anti-Police Sentiment,” baltimoresun.com, June 21, 2020
11. Latisha Jensen, “Portland Man Describes Tearing Down Thomas Jefferson Statue: ‘It’s Not Vandalism,’” wweek.com, June 20, 2020
12. Caleb Parke, “From George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant: Statues, Monuments Vandalized Extend beyond Confederates amid Black Lives Matter Protests,” foxnews.com, June 22, 2020
13. Ted Mann, “Lincoln Statue With Kneeling Black Man Becomes Target of Protests,” wsj.com, June 25, 2020
14. Southern Poverty Law Center, “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” splcenter.org, Feb. 1, 2019
15. The Avalon Project, “Confederate States of America - A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union,” avalon.law.yale.edu  (accessed July 8, 2020)
16. The Avalon Project, “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.,” avalon.law.yale.edu  (accessed July 8, 2020)
17. Becky Little, “How the Cult of Robert E. Lee Was Born,” history.com, Aug. 14, 2017
18. Adam Serwer, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” theatlantic.com, June 4, 2017
19. Aishvarya Kavi, “Activists Push for Removal of Statue of Freed Slave Kneeling Before Lincoln,” nytimes.com, June 27, 2020
20. BBC, “Confederate and Columbus Statues Toppled by US Protesters,” bbc.com, June 11, 2020
21. Valerie Strauss, “Christopher Columbus: 3 Things You Think He Did That He Didn’t,” washingtonpost.com, Oct. 14, 2013
22. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Monuments of Hope, Memorials to a Poisoned Past,” britannica.com, May 25, 2018
23. Robert Draper, “Toppling Statues Is a First Step toward Ending Confederate Myths,” nationalgeographic.com, July 2, 2020
24. Khushbu Shah, “Atlanta's Confederate Monuments: How Do ‘Context Markers’ Help Explain Racism?,” theguardian.com, Aug. 3, 2019
25. Kelly Grovier, “Black Lives Matter Protests: Why Are Statues So Powerful?,” bbc.com, June 12, 2020
26. Ashlie D. Stevens, “As Confederate Monuments Come down, What Should Replace Them?,” salon.com, June 17, 2020
27. Juan De Anda, “Why Representation Matters Now,” mediapost.com, April 21, 2020
28. Charisse L'Pree, “Racial and Gender Exclusion from Media Affects Novel Group Identity; An Experimental Investigation of Symbolic Annihilation,” sites.google.com/site/charisselpree2 (accessed July 8, 2020)
29. Dessi Gomez, “Hello, Dolly? Petition Pushes for Parton Statues,” arkansasonline.com, June 23, 2020
30. Alex Parsons, “Replace All Confederate Statues in Tennessee with Dolly Parton,” change.org (accessed July 8, 2020)
31. Catherine Thorbecke, “Walmart donates $100K to replace Arkansas' Confederate-linked statues at the US Capitol,” abcnew.go.com, July 7, 2020
32. Nellie Peyton, “As the Men of Stone Fall, Who Should Rise up and Take Their Place?,” news.trust.org, July 2, 2020
33. Kehinde Wiley, Instagram.com, June 4, 2020
34. Donald Trump, Twitter.com, June 30, 2020
35. Greta Anderson, “When Free Speech and Racist Speech Collide,” insidehighered.com, June 23, 2020
36. John Daniel Davidson, “Why We Should Keep The Confederate Monuments Right Where They Are,” thefederalist.com, Aug. 18, 2017
37. George Martin, “Why Confederate Monuments Should Be Preserved and Honored,” charlotteobserver.com, July 6, 2017
38. Lawrence A. Kuznar, “I Detest Our Confederate Monuments. but They Should Remain.,” washingtonpost.com, Aug. 18, 2017
39. Mount Vernon, “Slavery,” mountvernon.org (accessed July 7, 2020)
40. Monticello, “Jefferson's Attitudes toward Slavery,” monticello.org (accessed July 7, 2020)
41. Sarah Fling, “The Formerly Enslaved Household of the Grant Family,” whitehousehistory.org, Apr. 17, 2020
42. Stephen E. Ambrose, “Founding Fathers and Slaveholders,” smithsonianmag.com, Nov. 2002
43. Colleen Walsh, “Must We Allow Symbols of Racism on Public Land?,” harvard.edu, June 19, 2020
44. Evan Andrews, “How Many U.S. Presidents Owned Enslaved People?, history.com, Sep. 3, 2019
45. NPR Morning Edition, “For Stanton, All Women Were Not Created Equal,” npr.org, July 13, 2011
46. Linda Lopata, “If Susan B. Anthony Was Racist,” susanb.org (accessed July 7, 2020)
47. Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, “Martin Luther King Jr., Women, and the Possibility of Growth,” chicagoreporter.com, Jan. 18, 2019
48. Elliot Ackerman, “The Confederate Monuments We Shouldn’t Tear Down,” nytimes.com, July 7, 2020
49. Rebecca Klar, “Arthur Ashe Statue on Richmond's Monument Avenue Tagged with White Lives Matter Graffiti,” thehill.com, June 17, 2020
50. Sophia A. Nelson, “Opinion: Don't Take Down Confederate Monuments. Here's Why.,” nbcnews.com, June 1, 2017
51. Ellis Cose, “Keep Confederate Monuments, but Put Their Horrific History on Center Stage,” usatoday, Aug. 21, 2017
52. Hannah Natanson, “There’s a New Way to Deal with Confederate Monuments: Signs That Explain Their Racist History,” washingtonpost.com, Sep. 22, 2019
53. Natalie Huet, “Sir Geoff Palmer, ‘Don’t Take down Statues - Take down Racism,’” euronews.com, June 11, 2020