Why Even Now It’s Still Wrong To Vandalize Confederate Monuments

Over the past month I’ve written quite a bit about the ongoing discussion about the place of Confederate iconography – specifically flags and monuments – in local communities. Listening to the viewpoints of people on all sides of this issue and having to consider the actions of others has given me quite a bit to consider. A trip to Europe and exposure to new public history has also added to my curiosity. That I blog about it gives you a front seat to a thought process that may seem confused and even frustrating.

In 2011 I published a brief essay in the Atlantic in response to the vandalizing of the Lee Monument in my old hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. I’ve linked to it numerous times over the past few weeks to give readers a sense of where I am coming from as a historian of Civil War memory and, more importantly, as an educator. I even reiterated the points made in a recent post.

A number of posts, however, have left readers wondering if I have shifted positions and at least one fellow blogger recently suggested that what I’ve written ‘legitimizes the vandalism’ of monuments. I have always tried to write in a way that challenges readers, but I have also tried – as has been the case re: Civil War monuments – to bring my own assumptions into sharper focus.

So, in writing about the fact that the first monument to Calhoun that was erected in Charleston was removed, I was not suggesting that all Confederate monuments should be removed. Rather, I was reminding readers that removal is not a new concept. My recent visit to Prague and a museum that included numerous monuments removed after the fall of communism gave me a great deal to think about as I read editorials from back home demanding that Confederate monuments be treated similarly. Finally, a post I wrote two days ago has left some people wondering or accusing me of sanctioning the vandalizing of Confederate monuments.

I admit that I am still working through questions that I thought I had settled in my own mind. I admit that I have been challenged over the past few weeks. If you are confused by what I have written, you can always ask – though for the life of me I can’t imagine why that would be so important. For now, I recommend my 2011 Atlantic article.

Beyond that, you are welcome to come along for the ride.

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

5 comments… add one
  • Sue Golden Aug 6, 2015

    Kevin keep your eyes on the Kernstown Battlefield Association. Great things happening. If you come to town I will give you a tour.

  • Annette Jackson Aug 6, 2015

    Thank you for clearing up your position on this issue. As one who doesn’t support official recognition of any CSA symboI (flags, license plate, monuments) I also don’t approve of vandalism. I do approve of the messages, so perhaps that sounds a little contradictory. But I have never been predictable!

  • cagraham Aug 6, 2015

    My thinking on all this has been similarly buffeted. Commenting here, elsewhere, and on my own blog has helped me develop a more articulate and nuanced view on all this. The point is that I appreciate your thinking out loud. I’m doing the same. To that end I’ll make some general comments vaguely related to things you say here:

    I’d suggest that monument “vandalism” might not be so persistent if monument stewards weren’t being so damn intransigent on discussions regarding their movement. I know discussions elsewhere are productive (Rockville), but here in North Carolina, the state government and several counties are taking steps to make sure this conversation never happens. I can imagine the frustration.

    In the same way, monument stewards should legitimize anti-monument voices in new interpretive initiatives, not criminalize them. As far as I can tell, no new interpretive initiatives are taking place, at least in my state. Yeah, vandalism is a misdemeanor, but consigning a counter-narrative to misdemeanor status is stifling the historic voice of a population that is already criminalized in so many other ways. It will only produce more vandalism.

    A broad policy on moving monuments is probably not going to be useful. Local circumstances should dictate their location. I’m particularly struck by African American leaders who point out the symbolic power of a Confederate monument that looms over the entrance of a courthouse where many black men and women go to encounter the court system. Is the real problem a broken legal system? Yes. But, for God’s sake, that monument should be moved in that circumstance. Here in Hendersonville, the Confederate monument is tucked into the corner of the old courthouse, which houses some offices and a museum and is more a tourism stop than a representative of local power. No actual court takes place there. The monument could probably stay where it is. (Meanwhile, at the new courthouse, folks walk along Martin Luther King, Jr. Park before heading inside to face the music.)

    I say moving, instead of removing, because I’ve noticed that these things do tend to get pushed around the landscape like a chess piece. Many, like the one in Hendo in 1927, were taken out of roads because they became traffic hazards. In 2008, the Hendersonville monument got moved (again) across the (old) courthouse lawn on the whims of a landscape architect who didn’t want it crowding his work. As far as I can tell, no one had a problem with that. (Interestingly, the heritage museum was ready to junk the small R.E. Lee marker but the UDC stepped in, and now it resides in an inconspicuous spot behind the old courthouse.)

    Anyhow, keep thinking out loud. It helps.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 6, 2015

      I’d suggest that monument “vandalism” might not be so persistent if monument stewards weren’t being so damn intransigent on discussions regarding their movement. I know discussions elsewhere are productive (Rockville), but here in North Carolina, the state government and several counties are taking steps to make sure this conversation never happens. I can imagine the frustration.

      Great point. People who had no right to work through government when these monuments were first dedicated are still being prevented from voicing their concerns through their elected officials.

      Thanks for the words of encouragement.

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