There is a bewildering confusion plaguing my social media and news streams. It’s a perplexity of mistaken ideas about what constitutes history, legacy, and the difference between a person and a cause. In short, there seem to be a lot of people – far too many people – who cannot tell the difference between a human being and a statue.
As a public service, I will attempt to clarify this issue, explain the difference between a person and a public monument. The example of Robert E. Lee is timely – let’s take a look at this historical person who is also depicted in statues. Now, Robert E. lee was a real person who lived and died. Like all human beings he had characteristics that were both worthy and unworthy, lovable and disgraceful. I am sure he loved his children. He also owned human beings as property, like many other people in his time and place.
There are statues of Robert E. Lee throughout the United States, not just in the South. They depict the man, but (and this is a key point) they are NOT the man. These statues are public monuments placed in carefully selected sites to make a public statement. The purpose of statues of Robert E. Lee is to honor and represent not merely the individual portrayed, it is to hold up the cause and values for which that person stood.
A statue of Robert E. Lee is a public monument to the cause in which he was a leader - the Confederate States of America – and the values of that cause, two of which are separation from the United States of America and protection of the institution of slavery. In other words, public monuments to the Confederacy honor treason and racism.
This point seems achingly obvious to most people, but completely opaque to far too many. “The statues are historical markers,” they claim, “if we don’t have them we will forget our history.” Or, “if we get rid of Lee statues because he owned slaves where will it end?! Will we have to tear down statues of all slaveholders?”
If you understand a public monument as a tribute to a cause and to shared values, these questions are irrelevant. For clarity, look to the purpose that public monuments serve in the life of a community or nation. For instance, most Confederate monuments were erected well after the Civil War and many in locations and at points in time that reinforced racist ideology. For instance, the statue of Lee in Lexington, Ky is located in a former slave auction site. The location of the statue sends a clear message to the community that the Confederate cause has more value than the lives bought and sold there.
When New Orleans began removing public monuments to the Confederacy, Mayor Landrieu give an succinct and eloquent explanation of why it was the right and patriotic thing to do. About the statues he said,
“They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for,” he said. “They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has a report
showing the history and location of America’s Confederate monuments – statues, schools, parks, roadways, etc. Of the more than 1,500 such monuments and tributes, a significant number were dedicated around the time Jim Crow laws were put in place to disenfranchise African Americans (from about 1900 to the late 1920s) or as a response to the Civil Rights movement starting in the 1950s. The dedication of 20th century Confederate monuments was intended to reinforce white supremacist laws and principles.
Still, you may say, if you take down a statue of one slaveholder, why not all the others? Where will you stop? Don’t be silly.
Let’s consider some of those statues. George Washington owned slaves, it is true. However, the statues and other monuments that depict Washington honor the cause – the founding of the United States – and values – freedom and democracy – for which he was a leader.
When people gather at monuments of Washington they remember and celebrate the foundational principles that unite the nation. In fact, the cause for which Washington fought ended up being the vehicle by which slavery was eventually ended.
What community or national purpose do Confederate monuments, particularly statues to Confederate leaders, serve today? They are rallying points for racist ideology, sites where white nationalists, white supremacists, and Nazis gather to promote their cause and values: racial homogeneity and obliteration of their opponents.
A public monument should enshrine the common cause of a nation and the values that build up community. Tributes to the Confederacy do not meet this standard; they rend rather than mend the fabric of our country and our common life.