A bill [HB 587] has reached Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s desk that would make it illegal for local communities to remove Confederate memorials. It is my hope that the governor will veto this bill.
I say this not because I advocate the removal or relocation of monuments to any individual or event in American history. As I have stated all along, I believe it is up to local communities to make these decisions about what and how to commemorate and remember their collective stories. As we have already seen, these discussions will sometimes include an alteration to the local commemorative landscape, calendar, etc.
State governments did not interfere by dictating how local communities commemorated the Civil War at the height of monument construction in the early twentieth century. Why is it necessary now? It is also ironic that laws at the state level, which prevented entire segments of the population from voicing their own preferences about how to commemorate the Civil War during the Jim Crow Era, may continue to shape the terms under which citizens can control their local commemorative landscapes.
Public historians have voiced their views on whether monuments should be removed or relocated, but I have not heard much of anything about this bill and similar bills that are under consideration in other states. As a historian of Civil War memory I believe that these debates are essential in the life of a community and in the life of our individual monuments. They must be allowed to take place with all options left on the table.
Monuments and memorials are not simply intended to represent a community’s shared past. They function to tell a unified story that unites residents around a set of shared values that hopefully will extend to subsequent generations. That was never the case in regard to monuments that glorified the Confederacy and the Confederate soldier. Regardless of whether a single monument is removed or relocated in Virginia, the fact that legislation is even being considered serves as a clear reminder of this fact.
Passing laws to protect Confederate monuments does nothing more than hurt the communities in which they are located. The upshot is dismantling a community’s right and need to come to terms with the legacy of the history that a monument is intended to commemorate and the monument itself. The only way you can ultimately protect Confederate monuments is by trusting their fate to the very people who must live with them.