Protect Virginia’s Confederate Monuments, Veto HB 587

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.

18 comments… add one
  • James Harrigan Mar 5, 2016

    Kevin, I don’t understand this legislation. Virginia law already prohibits local communities from removing or altering Confederate monuments. It looks to me like this bill is a very minor amendment to and re-enactment of this (deplorable) restriction on local control.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2016

      As I understand it, a judge ruled that the legislation only applies to monuments erected after 1998.

  • Ken Noe Mar 5, 2016

    The Alabama Senate just approved a more sweeping measure: http://tinyurl.com/zrrvztn

  • Sandi Saunders Mar 5, 2016

    It was a bad law and they want to make it worse. This is all about preserving the Confederacy whether a locality supports that or not. When Danville, Virginia took down the Confederate Battle Flag at the Sutherlin Mansion, Confederates lost in court because the law was understood not to cover “monuments” before 1998. This is an effort to “fix” that “problem” and it stinks to this Virginian.

  • Richard Mar 5, 2016

    So people, many of whom say opposing a strong central government(i.e. supporting states’ rights)was the key issue of the war now want a strong centralized state government to override local community rights?

    • Andy Hall Mar 5, 2016

      So people, many of whom say opposing a strong central government(i.e. supporting states’ rights)was the key issue of the war now want a strong centralized state government to override local community rights?

      That’s exactly right.

    • M.D. Blough Mar 5, 2016

      These are the same people who proclaim their belief in individual freedom unless an individual’s belief conflicts with their beliefs on human sexuality in which case they will try to restrict or eliminate that freedom as much as they can and at whatever level, even the federal, that they can. In a strange way, this is a replay of positions on slavery before the Civil War. People who proclaimed their belief in states’ rights when the protection of slavery was at issue had no qualms about interfering with the rights of free states and the free states’ citizens in order to recover runaway slaves or expand slavery. (For example, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the unfulfilled demands of the fire-eaters for inclusion of a plank demanding added federal protections for slavery in the Democratic Party platform for the 1860 presidential race)

  • Foretser Mar 5, 2016

    I support the monuments. I’ve been a vocal supporter of preserving the monuments in Norfolk and Portsmouth. BUT …. the state shouldn’t be able to force it’s will on individual communities.

    Funny how certain people decry “big government” until it’s supporting their own agendas. 😉

  • Bob Huddleston Mar 5, 2016

    Sometimes monuments get relocated because they have become a traffic hazard or a street needs widening. I suppose this would also prohibit that.

  • Foretser Mar 5, 2016

    Now that you mention it, the Portsmouth monument IS a pain in the ass for motorists (it’s smack in the middle of the road). Especially being located next to a community college and near an area with a lot of drinking after dark. Never thought about traffic problem.

  • Rob Orrison Mar 6, 2016

    Keep in mind Virginia is a Dillon Rule state – the local governments have NO authority that is not given to it by the state of Virginia. Virginia is one of a few states that have the Dillon Rule form of government. Many above are arguing why the state is getting involved in local communities etc… Here in Virginia, that is very common and the way the state is governed. The Dillon Rule is very restrictive to Counties and Cities – in more important matters of education, transportation and development rights etc. I don’t think one can look at this legislation without looking into the Dillon Rule and how the state governs. Local govts (Counties and Cities) only have authority over things the state explicitly gives it. Very different from many other states. An introductory history of the Dillon Rule can be found in Wiki

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Forrest_Dillon

    • Kevin Levin Mar 6, 2016

      Hi Rob,

      Thanks for providing some context. I am vaguely familiar with it having lived in Virginia for ten years. That said, I still maintain that local communities ought to be able to make their own decisions re: monuments and other commemorative public spaces, which I assume they were allowed to do when planning these very same sites.

  • Rob Orrison Mar 6, 2016

    We agree on that actually, I was just letting everyone know this quirky form of government that Virginia has (and a few other states). it is very different than most states and explains a lot of why the Gen. Assembly gets involved in these issues.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 6, 2016

      Thanks for the clarification, but other states that do not operate under the Dillon Rule have also passed or are attempting to pass similar bills.

  • Patrick Jennings Mar 8, 2016

    Kevin I fear I must be a bit contrary here. Having been a Public Historian for several years now with the federal government, I am quite disturbed by the idea that monuments; “…function to tell a unified story that unites residents around a set of shared values that hopefully will extend to subsequent generations.”

    Quite frankly, there is no such thing as a “unified story that unites” anyone around a set of shared values. The very notion of residents being something that belong to the generations is entirely shattered by the contemporary world.Indeed, according to a Pew report, six in ten adults have moved at least once away from the community they grew up in. What residents are we talking about here? The old lady who lives next door to me here in Virginia and has southern roots deeper than any tree in my yard, or my darling “Yankee” wife who moved here with me less than a year ago? Are we talking about the genuine descendants of slaves that still hold out in the ever-so-quickly gentrifying Parker-Grey area of Alexandria or the newly wealthy government class that is gobbling up the neighborhood to live near Old Town?

    More importantly, history was and never should be, considered a “unifying” thing. History hurts, it has sharp elbows where no one is spared and everyone is remembered. How long before we remove the lovely statue at Alexandria’s Contraband and Freedman’s Cemetery for fear that it offends new immigrants from Mali Africa whose ancestors participated in the slave trade? Should we tear down the statues to John Brown because he was a domestic terrorist? In New England, shall we bring down the edifices of the Phillip’s academies (Andover and Exeter) because of that families well-known involvement in slavery? Of course we should not..memory and memorials are the only visual tools we have that force us to engage the discomfort of the past.

    Perhaps former Marine pilot Greg Boyington was absolutely correct when he wrote, “Show me a hero and I’ll show you a bum.” It is far too easy to dismantle any human once they are the dominion of perfect hindsight of history’s 20/20 vision – especially now in this age of perpetual outrage. It is like having your cake without suffering through your vegetables. It is too easy and therefore not worth the damage it will cause.

    I know, and accept, that your instant response is that the local community should decide, but that community is not what you imagine it to be. Communities shift and change at the whims of the economy and (around here especially) the whims of politics. Boston is no longer primarily Irish (who took it from the Brahmin English who took it from the Native American’s) just as my one-time hometown of Exeter NH is no longer lily-white – but the history that makes those places still remains. Should we destroy a piece of public artwork for the sake of a contemporary “feel good” moment? Is that not what the Taliban did in Bamiyan Afghanistan with the Buddah’s…make a unifying community decision?

    • Kevin Levin Mar 8, 2016

      Hi Patrick,

      Thanks for the comment. You always force me to think deeper about this subject and for that I thank you.

      Perhaps I should have been clearer in how I believe monuments function. What I mean to say is that organization and dedication of monuments attempts to tell a unified story that speaks for the community. As you well know, read any dedication speech and you will be hard pressed to find narratives that explicitly suggest qualifications for their very justification. I suspect that for the vast majority of people who attended the dedication of the Lee monument in Richmond that they believed or hoped that Lee’s memory would be just as vibrant in 1990 as it was in 1890.

      Looking back we can see that these narrative do not, in fact, unify generations just as they never unified Richmond in 1890. John Mitchell’s words about what the black man would eventually do to the Lee monument echo.

      Yes, in terms of the examples you provide I believe the local communities should be left to make their own decision. Finally, I take issue with your characterization of recent calls to remove or relocate monuments as well as calls for other types of changes as “feel good” moments. It’s dismissive and fails to take seriously many of these campaigns even if you do not agree. Would you characterize the dedication of the Lee Monument or any other Confederate monument as simply a “feel good” moment?

  • Patrick Jennings Mar 8, 2016

    Kevin,

    I must agree that the from the day a monument is proposed to the day it’s completion is celebrated it is done in the spirit of the community and is typically done with a theme meant to draw that community together. That said, I would characterize the dedication of any Confederate monument (or any monument for that matter) as a “feel good” moment. They are opened on days when we, as people, hope to imagine the best in ourselves.

    When I worked as a flat-hat Park Ranger for the NPS I used to tell visitors that contrary to what they think, monuments (especially at battlefields) are not built for the dead – they are built for the living. The problem is that the living always change. I used the Bunker Hill Monument as an example – a monument to a battle lost at that. Proposed in 1823, the cornerstone wasn’t laid until 1825 and the dedication not until 1843. It is easy to see that the meaning of that monument changed in the 20 years it took to build it and it has changed many times over since. Our one time enemy, the British, are now our best ally. Despite the fact that many of the colonial leaders at the fight owned slaves it was used, during the Civil War, as a recruiting tool for soldiers on their way to end slavery. Once a beacon for white New Englanders, it now tells the story of all patriots of color who fought there and even delves deeply into the motivations of the British soldier who were victorious on the day of battle. At one point, it was even used to project a movie about crime and violence in the once-poor neighborhood of Charlestown. All of that is interpretation in the contemporary…by the living.

    You are, without a doubt, correct when you note that Lee’s Monument was dedicated for a very specific (and ultimately racist) message, but the words of that message slipped away with the same wind that once carried them to the audience there. Once built, it belongs forever to the living. That is the responsibility of good historians to provide positive, community driven interpretation. Removing a monument does nothing toward erasing the good and bad at the heart of it. Only proactive interpretation can serve the living by helping us better define the past.

    It is safe to say that you also, Kevin, force me to think deeper about these issues. Thank you for the conversation.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 8, 2016

      Thanks for the response.

      Once built, it belongs forever to the living. That is the responsibility of good historians to provide positive, community driven interpretation. Removing a monument does nothing toward erasing the good and bad at the heart of it.

      We completely agree on your first and second points. As your third point, I take it that you understand it as your own personal opinion and one that does not necessarily reflect the views of other public historians.

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