Stone generals of any war are not only shrines, they are politicians who silently speak to the values of a people at a historical moment. But those moments are transient, like the politicians themselves. Times change; values change. Politicians and statues are removed when they lose their relevance or offend the moment.
The centuries-old Canterbury shrine of Thomas Becket – a venerated Catholic cardinal — was removed by Henry VIII at the outset of the English Reformation. Tsar Alexander III’s Moscow statue was toppled by Bolsheviks in 1918. The Nazi Swastika atop the Nuremburg stadium was blown up in 1945. Horatio Nelson’s pillar stood defiantly on Dublin’s O’Connell Street from 1809 until 1966 when the IRA blew it into tiny particles. Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down and pummeled with shoes in 2003.
The statues honoring Confederate generals were built after Reconstruction (ca. 1880) when former Confederate states regained political power through systematic voter suppression (murderous night raids, lynchings, death threats
against black voters, poll taxes, literacy tests, Jim Crow laws).
The assaults against newly-minted black citizens occurred soon after the Civil War. They were managed by white supremacist groups, often led by former Confederate soldiers furious that their former “property” now had civil rights. The KKK and affiliated groups murdered thousands of black men, women and
children in an organized, decade- long reign of terror across the southern states.
Should we be surprised that African Americans feel shamed by publicly displayed monuments that celebrate the glory of their tormentors? Would a Jewish community feature a statue of Hitler or Goebbels in their town square? Would the Palestinians ignore a statue of Netanyahu in their market place? Would a statue of Lincoln or Barack Obama survive long in Selma, Alabama?
When Mitch Landrau removed the statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard from the center of New Orleans, he stated that “to expect anyone in the second decade of the 21 st century – especially African Americans – to live among “reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd. “
Landrieu touched on what these statues “said.” They “were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.”
He further argued that: “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”
Some well-intentioned people may truly believe these Confederate statues honor their cultural heritage and their ancestors. If so, their plan of action should be to save them from destruction by removing them from the public square to private estates or dedicated museums. In this way, their presence and tax-payer funded maintenance will not offend citizens who revere neither the cultural heritage nor their unmistakable message.
Others have argued that the Washington and Jefferson monuments should be removed since the first and third presidents were slave owners. Though they were indeed slave owners, calls for their removal studiously blur essential
distinctions. As Dr. Clarence Jones, an associate of Martin Luther King Jr., stated for BBC News in 2017:
“There was no question they were morally compromised in their effort to fashion together this new country, a republic, based on the principles and precepts enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. But neither of those two persons led the nation in a treasonous insurrection to overthrow the government they had formed in order to preserve the institution of slavery.”
Washington and Jefferson, as founding fathers, helped sire a new government, one capable of eventually correcting the latent birth defect in the nation’s Constitution. They were creators, not would-be destroyers, of the “United” States.
But we must pause and remember what inflamed this current debate over stone generals: The nine-minute, real-time video of a manacled black man, pinned to the ground and choked to death — murdered by a policeman as he pleaded for his life and cried for his dead mother. This piercing, nightmarish image draws a straight line back in time to the horrid abuses inflicted on pre-
Civil War slaves and post-Civil War freed men and women.
It is past time to remove those stone politicians whose “voices” glorify a sorrowful history and listen instead to the living voices seeking to right past wrongs.