Why It Is Still Wrong to Vandalize Confederate Monuments

Yesterday the Governor of Alabama ordered the removal of a Confederate flag located on the statehouse grounds next to a Confederate monument. Given the wave of calls for the removal of Confederate monuments I am surprised that this particular monument was not singled out for removal or even defaced as has been the case in Baltimore, Charleston, and Memphis. I am pleased that neither has occurred as of yet.

In March 2015 I accompanied roughly forty students from Boston on a 5-day civil rights tour of the South that included the city of Montgomery. On one bright early morning I led the group around the statehouse grounds and made it a point to stop by the flag and monument. Many of the students had never seen a Confederate monument up close or given much thought to what they represent.

I instructed them to spend a few minutes observing the monument and reading the inscriptions. It didn’t take long for the sound of raised voices. They found it.

THE KNIGHTLIEST OF THE KNIGHTLY RACE/WHO SINCE THE DAYS OF OLD,/HAVE KEPT THE LAMP OF CHIVALRY/ALIGHT IN HEARTS OF GOLD.”

A few students suggested that the monument ought to be removed, that it had no place on public grounds given what they perceived to be its explicitly racist message. Once they cooled down we engaged in a more thoughtful conversation about other ways the space could be utilized. A few students explored the power of holding civil rights related events with the monument in the backdrop.

We discussed the possibility of placing signage to help explain the history of the monument. It was at this point when I pointed out that the granite used for the four military figures on the monument was quarried just south of Boston in the town of Quincy. Silence… followed by an even more interesting discussion about the complexity of history and race.

In 2011 I wrote the following in an essay for the Atlantic following the defacing of Confederate monuments in Richmond and my then hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia:

For me, Richmond’s memorial landscape functions as an organic whole. The Arthur Ashe Monument only works because it stands on the same street as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. The same holds true for the new additions to the grounds of the state capital, the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar, and countless other places in the broader Richmond area.

Touring these sites together opens up a unique window not simply on the history of the Civil War and race relations, but on the history of American democracy. The sites themselves track the range of voices that fought for the right to engage in public discussions about how Richmond’s past is remembered. In short, they track the history of the community’s values — and they demonstrate that community’s willingness not to brush aside controversial or embarrassing aspects of its past.

The Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville has long been one of my favorite places to bring students.  I’ve spent countless hours in that park sharing stories of Lee, the development of Richmond in the late 19th century, and Jim Crow laws.  These discussions were more than academic exercises; they gave me a chance to help build reflective and caring citizens.

Teaching history and visiting historic sites is, in part, about learning how to empathize and appreciating how the past shapes who we take ourselves to be. For better or for worse, monuments to Confederate heroes are part of our story, but each of us can choose how to engage with these places. We can express outrage over their existence. We can alter them with statements of our own. Or we can let them be, appreciate their aesthetic qualities, and reflect carefully on their history.

I stand by every word now more than ever.

Ultimately it will be up to the residents of each community to decide what happens to Confederate monuments and other reminders of this particular moment in our history. Perhaps monuments should be moved to museums or other more appropriate spaces. There is nothing timeless about Confederate or any other monument. Each generation must decide how to utilize the limited space available for commemorating its collective past.

My only concern as a history educator and as a historian is that it be done with care.

It is true that the construction and dedication of Confederate monuments between roughly 1880 and 1920 tells us a great deal about how Americans confronted their past, what they chose to remember and what they chose to forget. What we do about them now will tell us a great deal about ourselves.

12 thoughts on “Why It Is Still Wrong to Vandalize Confederate Monuments

  1. Annette Jackson

    Excellent and thoughtful as usual. I would never approve of anyone defacing a monument and I am not in favor of removing one either, with the exception of Alexander Stephens.. Unfortunately some talking head on CNN asked another talking head if it wasn’t time to remove the Jefferson Memorial. The answer was no, but included a statement that discussion of slave holding presidents is certainly legitimate. The taking heads generally create much heat and little light.

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  2. Jon Phillips

    It is a notable characteristic of most Confederate inscriptions that they memorialize a culture under which the highest function of its alpha males was to avoid labor and prove their excellence killing other on the field of battle. In my mind they are damned by their own words and culture and that is reason to remember it, and leave it alone. Vandalizing historic monuments should be distinguished, however, from removing them from contexts where they were introduced as a territorial act of intimidation on voting rights and equal rights. Removing the symbols of the Confederacy from the nation it was at war with in the context of active seats of power, state or federal is intelligent as their presence can be misinterpreted as an endorsement of the chattel slave culture they embodied.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Removing the symbols of the Confederacy from the nation it was at war with in the context of active seats of power, state or federal is intelligent as their presence can be misinterpreted as an endorsement of the chattel slave culture they embodied.

      That is one reason why I believe adding signage that explains the history of the monument ought to be considered as an alternative to removal. Adding to the commemorative landscape, as has been done in Richmond very effectively, is another approach.

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  3. Leo

    This is a fantastic article, Kevin. While I am in favor of removing Confederate flag from the state flag of Mississippi and other public spaces, I do not like this trend of defacing monuments. I understand the emotional reaction taking place, especially given the ridiculously selfish behavior of governor Bryant of Mississippi. He honestly reminds me of former Alabama governor Wallace standing in the door at the University of Alabama. It is shameful and I am embarrassed for my home state.

    The University of Mississippi has placed historical signage next to the Confederate monument of campus as well as other markers around campus relating to events of the Civil War and the Civil Rights to give context and it is working.

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  4. Patrick Jennings

    Honoring the dead is a far cry from supporting, either directly or indirectly, a specific cause such as slavery. The thousands of monuments that dot the south (and in a few cases the north) built to remember the dead should not be used or interpreted as props to support the cause of slavery or the contemporary and constantly changing view of racism.

    All people are wrong in times which they do not live. Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, John F Kennedy and others are just as racist, ill-advised, and wrong-minded in our time as we would be in theirs. Above, Jon Phillips writes with the confidence of a fully-evolved human who has, in his own mind, reached the pinnacle of righteous development and sees past, present, and future instantaneously and with stunning clarity. In 100 years the living will laugh at his, and my, failing attempts to see beyond what we are – people trapped in our time confounded with an ever-shifting set of morals, ethics, and demands.

    I support the removal of the Confederate regimental “battle flag” from state grounds because it was put there not by grieving widows and sons in the shadow of the war – rather by racist politicians in my own time. It is silly for those who argue that the flag is there as a symbol of heritage when history clearly shows us it is there to symbolize Southern defiance in the face of a burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.. Still, the same could be said of the US flag if one were to show the iconic photo “The Soiling of Old Glory” that shows a white northerner (in…gasp…Boston MA of all places!) using the US flag to jab a black Civil Rights lawyer over the exact same cause. I equally support a true national conversation that must involve harsh rhetoric and ill-used words to eventually take us to a place of calm listening and better understanding.

    Statues, on the other hand, are markers of immediate remembrance of those who do not make policy, rather they fight for the internalized meaning of that policy. For example, in Concord Massachusetts and along the old road to Lexington there are touching tributes to those who supported tyranny – British soldiers. No one is calling for their removal. Across Germany I have seen at least 60 monuments to Wehrmacht soldiers of WWII, the only prohibition there being against displaying the swastika. They should never be abolished. Most, but not all, memorials to Confederate dead are symbols of mourning, not resistance. In Alexandria VA, my current home, our rebel has pulled his cap off and looks forlornly toward his lost friends and his lost cause. Where I grew up in SW Virginia a lone soldier at rest stands above the simple words “Confederate Dead.”

    Defacing these monuments, or calling for their removal, is an act of vacuous stupidity. It is a vain attempt to hide a past that is an essential part of our national conversation. They are a reminder that times change, that causes morph well beyond their intended means, that good and bad dwell together, and that we as a single nation must embrace the fullness of our past for what it was, not what it means when reflected against today’s time-limited morality.

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    1. Julian

      I agree Patrick – the primary purpose of war memorials -especially at the regional/local level is to assuage a sense of personal loss within families of a particular location or document local people who fought – and they play this role in many cultures and communities, They are often the focus for ceremonies of memory and mourning and reflecting upon the sacrifice of one generation for the future of the community, thus for example the habit in some countries of brides sending their wedding flowers to the local war memorial.
      I have seen the typology of the figure of the young soldier on a column in many countries and contexts, it is an overdeterminism and overreaction to read these fairly universal and standard monuments (give or take details of fashions and uniforms) that hold genuine symbolic and emotional meaning as being solely an instrumental reflection of the human and political shortfalls – and if that is your particular interpretation – the a priori racism of the CSA

      Given that I personally believe (and I have done serious academic studies around this topic only not within the context of US scholarship – hence my voice and interpretation is different to some of yours) that these humble local memorials are generally transparent and direct in the emotional function that they serve and the human needs tied up in them are fairly direct and not complex and politicised – given that the movers and shakers of Confederate society – those with large investment in slave populations were exempt from service – wars are fought by poor men [and a few women] – I do not think that those seeking to damage or deface these monuments – should be taken for granted as they may see themselves as righting a wrong or enacting a heroic political deed – but they are also cutting across a whole range of investments in the site – some of which are despicable. some of which are about humanity and family – the very matters of respect and meaning that people are asking to be extended to all members of the wider community

      we need to have a space where we can be able to ask questions about people’s motivations in damaging a statue or identify the irony that they are demanding the respect that they do not give to others – so we need a space which offers room for all to honour their ancestors – without however demanding the erasure of others’ ancestors – and allowing that people can have different investments in the same symbol

      Certainly when all things are considered these small statues have a far longer and more genuine history in the landscape than the more recent flag placements which also reflected the curious postwar fascination with the Battleflag – which went beyond the functions of racism – more as a thing of romance and nostalgia – think of the Civil War themed toys in Sears catalogues of the 50s and 60s – and which extended beyond the South – and as such could be seen ultimately as more ephemeral

      OTOH – certainly there are more complex and declamatory and political purposes about statues in capitol cities or metropolitan centres – and these statues were erected with an “intent”, but in some way public art from monoliths of Egypt to the Calder, Meadmore, Moore or Picasso on the corporate forecourt have always been communicators of messages about power, governance and community. most obvious are statues of leaders royal, political and military, but also figures such as freedom fighters, legendary folk heroes, national poets and musicians, and also figures representing social and religious values. In the 19th century, particularly following on from French practice, sculptures often were clustered about certain public spaces and often acted in concert with each other augmenting and amplifying each other. In many cases changes in the public mood or regime were marked by changes or augmentations of the sculpturescape. Kevin’s usage of the expanded sculpturescape as a teaching tool is basically using them as they were intended to be – albeit for different purposes.

      so the popular post modern trend of “anti-memorials”, responses by contemporary artists on the site or near by, theatrical performances or interpretative signage is part of those shifts in meaning and message

      I personally think that anyone who defaces an artwork is tending towards a form of intolerance if not an outright mental illness, political motivations are post facto justifications – someone has put thought and talent into making an artwork, we are free to dislike it, but there is a bankruptcy of soul in destroying something that has meaning to others or that has had thought and craft expended upon it – think of the Taliban blowing up statues, or the destruction of Church buildings under communism, the coordinated burning and destruction of Synagogues on Kristallnacht across Germany, Chinese desecration of Tibetan temples, all extremists of different persuasions feel themselves justified in erasing what displeases them (and as we know they don’t stop at inanimate material culture but will take out live opponents too) – ok scrawling “black lives matter” on a 19th century sculpture may not be in quite the same league – but it is also saying “my needs and my ideology are more important than others out there” or whether it is a lesser or greater irresponsibility than saying that there were 20,000 armed African Americans in Confederate ranks that are not mentioned in historical records from either side is perhaps a difficult call

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  5. kacinash

    I enjoy hearing about your teaching and your students’ experiences. I wish I could join your classes! Sounds like great discussions are had.

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  6. James F. Epperson

    I tend to see a bright line of distinction between ephemeral things like flags and more permanent things like statues and such. To be honest, I am not entirely on-board with McConnell’s request to remove the statue of Jefferson Davis from the Kentucky capitol.

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    1. Andy Hall

      The most useful distinction I’ve seen, via Michael Rodgers, is whether the display — usually a flag — conveys sovereignty or official endorsement. That’s a somewhat subjective judgement, but it would preclude most displays on government property. I think that’s the right balance.

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    2. Andrew Raker

      I think I’m more sympathetic to the calls to move the statue of Davis because of its location in the rotunda, the symbolic heart of the state. If it was elsewhere in the building, well, I’d still honestly probably vote to take it down if I were on the agency that makes this decision, but there’s just something about him being in this place of honor, among only 4 other people, that makes me even more eager to have his statue replaced.

      I have, however, gotten some great pictures of the statue of Lincoln towering over the statue of Davis, so there is at least that going for its placement.

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  7. Brad

    Statues have been defaced and calls made for their removals similar to what happened to the old USSR after it fell. Sweeping them away will not erase history and I’m uncomfortable with removing them.

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