How Should Confederate Monuments Come Down?

Yesterday I tweeted out the following message. I received a number of thoughtful responses, which I did my best to respond to, but I think it might be helpful to share my thoughts here for future reference.

The most common response was that I was undercutting the importance and necessity of local demonstrators and the hard work of activists over the years in bringing about these removals. Nothing could be further from the truth and I apologize if that is how many of you interpreted the tweet.

Historians will look back on this moment in the debate about Confederate monuments and point to the community activism in Richmond as its most significant outcome. Few people, if any, could have anticipated the way in which Richmonders have appropriated the space around the Robert E. Lee monument.

Residents, young and old, have offered their own unique form of contextualization that bridges the divide between history, art, and community activism. They have claimed it as their own and in doing so have made a convincing argument as to why the monument ought to be removed.

Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, Virginia (Photo credit: Julia Rendleman)

But if Robert E. Lee and the other Confederate monuments on Monument Avenue must come down, I want to see the city remove them. It is the city that initially made room for them as part of a new neighborhood open solely to white people. It was the city that expected its residents, black and white, to venerate these men and the cause for which they were willing to give their lives to defend.

In taking them down the city offers the most powerful and legitimate rejection of everything these monuments symbolize. Local government speaks for the entire community regardless of whether the entire community agrees with the decision. It offers a kind of closure that is difficult to achieve any other way. It also the only option that stands any chance of engaging the entire community around transforming the public space in question into a site where all residents feel welcome and that reflects their collective values.

I am fully aware that this is not a perfect solution. As we all know, the wheels of government move slow and include any number of legal and political roadblocks. In those cases where local governments do initiate removal I worry about the hard work of community activists being overshadowed and lost in the story. We’ve already seen something like this in the case of New Orleans, which removed four monuments in 2017. I suspect that most people credit former mayor Mitch Landrieu solely for the removals, but know little about the efforts of #TakeEmDownNola and the long history of protest in the city.

There may even be cases where removal by the community is necessary such as in the case of the Confederate statue known as “Silent Sam” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel, which was removed by students in August 2018. For decades school administrators ignored the will of its students and faculty, only to engage in a controversial deal with the Sons of Confederate Veterans after the statue was removed.

There is nothing necessarily timeless about any monument or memorial. Our monument landscapes are constantly evolving based on any number of factors. We need passionate activists who are willing to put pressure on local communities and government and even, at times, make them feel uncomfortable. We also need responsive local government that is willing to respond to this pressure and put in place a review process that leads to an outcome that the community as a whole can embrace.

This is where I am in my thinking right now. There is certainly plenty of room for disagreement and I welcome it. Thanks.

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my latest book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Order your copy today.

31 comments… add one
  • David G Jun 30, 2020 @ 12:26

    They shouldn’t be taken down yes or nation has sinned and we have moved forward from it has everyone who reads this has sinned and if you take down the monuments and you destroy our history what’s next are we going to be burning books please read 1984

    • Algernon Ward Jr. Jun 30, 2020 @ 14:03

      Dear David,
      True. We all have sinned, but to move on, one must first stop sinning. The confederate monuments and flags were erected as a defiant reminder of the “lost cause” as enunciated the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens…”Its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth”. The monuments were erected and venerated upon US public property by recalcitrant southerners to remind both Black and White Americans that the ideology of white supremacy remains in place. Indeed a continuation of the original sin. Yes, it is time to move on, that cause was lost in 1865, but Mississippi just voted to remove the Confederate emblem from it’s flag yesterday, 155 years late. Since the men depicted on these monuments committed bloody treason as enemies of the United States and fought under their battle flag, they should be removed. Not destroyed as you fear, but removed to a cemetery or museum. History cannot be destroyed, no one is burning books, and 1984 was fiction. The bottom line is, no enemy of the United States deserves to be commemorated on US Public property paid for by US citizens.

      • Tsinina G Burgan Jul 20, 2020 @ 9:44

        I enjoy reading your thoughts and wondered if I could ponder a question with you. As I continue to educate myself on so much right now, the discussion ya’ll have been having about monuments has raised a thought to my mind. I am a Christian living in the South and know that we have had petitions in the past for a Satanic monument to be placed on government property, similar to the Ten Commandments. Through your discussion, I am understanding the placement of any monument (government property vs private property) as being critical. Although I wouldn’t support a Satanic type monument, I do believe that if, as Christians, we want the right to display our Christian believes, should we not also allow other religions to do the same for the sake of religious freedom? Again, government property vs private property is the key consideration here, I believe. But (thinking out loud), if we feel it’s detrimental to our being/purpose as Christians, should we be willing to forego our displays as well as others? Yet, ie, the Ten Commandments is our ‘history’ and foundation as Christians…Civil War monuments are also our history, things we are to learn from. Again, I’m just rambling and thinking out loud as I type this. I’m not educated and appreciate simplistic terms in helping me to understand. It’s my goal to be a part of the solution but to do that I must first have understanding. Thank you for your help.

  • New England Jon Jun 30, 2020 @ 11:29

    Not sure where to put this, but a friend knows that I have visited some battlefields and he just texted me this afternoon saying I should visit others soon before they go away. I don’t know, but I assume that commerce is more of an enemy to the battlefields than iconoclasm.

  • Ronald Mills Jun 30, 2020 @ 7:52

    Poland did not tear down Auschwitz after World War II

    • David Bruce Appleton Jun 30, 2020 @ 9:11

      Auschwitz remains as a memorial to those who were imprisoned and killed there, not to those who imprisoned and killed them. But what you are referring to would be more akin to placing a statue of Heinrich Himmler there, and there are no such statues anywhere in Europe or elsewhere.

    • Robin Kirk Jun 30, 2020 @ 9:23

      Auschwitz is a memorial to victims. Confederate memorials celebrate the enslavers. Are there monuments to Hitler or Goering or Goebbels in Germany? No.

      • Lee Jul 2, 2020 @ 5:44

        While there certainly are no monuments honoring Hitler and other Nazi leaders in Germany, there are memorials honoring German soldiers, sailors, and airmen from both WWII and WWI. So I don’t think one can clearly use the German situation to argue that there should be no memorials to anyone who fought for the Confederacy.

        • Matt McKeon Jul 2, 2020 @ 10:29

          There is little memorialization of German servicemen from WWII. Usually more names are added to the existing WWI memorials. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Germans were typically self pitying and defensive, but the generation that came of age in the 1960s firmly rejected a heroic narrative for German armed force, a rejection strengthened as more evidence of the willing collaboration of regular German troops in genocide. I’m almost finished with a very interesting book called: Learning From the Germans, by Susan Neiman, where she describes Germany’s “working through the past,” and compares it with American efforts to come to terms with slavery, the Civil War and Jim Crow.

  • Linda D SCHROEDER Jun 30, 2020 @ 4:14

    History has a way of repeating itself, if it’s only about Confederate statues then why was Christopher Columbus, Abraham Lincoln, and now I read they want to remove American Indian statues I think this is a true disgrace to a people who have suffered more than anyone in this country since they were put on reservations everything taken from them, and still today they suffer because no one can see beyond the end of their fat noses

  • Bob Johnson Jun 29, 2020 @ 11:49

    Kevin Levin, Please let me start by telling you how much I enjoyed your book. With the present conflict regarding the removal of monuments it is good to read about a sensible approach to the situation. I fear that the politicization of the issue is surely overshadowing the reasonable minds and opinions that have voiced possible solutions. I do believe that you have contributed a much needed voice of calm and reason to the debate. I must wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Ward in regard to treason and traitors and my question is always; what would the common response be to a monument erected to Benedict Arnold? I do think there would be a place for much discussion there. I live in Ohio , and interestingly enough we have hade a number of Confederate monuments here and the major portion were the product of efforts of the UDC. There are three that I am aware of that are located in POW cemeteries. I believe that this is appropriate placement and in all of these locations there is no effort to encourage “Lost Cause” support but simply serve as a memorial to the soldiers buried there. Again I enjoyed your book very much and am happy to have found this site.
    Thank you,
    Bob Johnson

    • Kevin Levin Jun 29, 2020 @ 12:27

      Hi Bob. Thanks for taking the time to comment. So glad to hear that you enjoyed the book.

  • Msb Jun 29, 2020 @ 11:09

    “ Our monument landscapes are constantly evolving”.

    This point can not be overemphasized: things change, including the people included in “the community”, their understanding of the past and the people and values they wish to honor. A process of consideration, consensus (hopefully) and action, shepherded by local authorities, seems the healthiest for communities, and the safest. Protestors removing monument by themselves have already been hurt in the process: let’s leave this work to those who can do it safely for all parties.

  • Algernon Ward Jr. Jun 29, 2020 @ 8:05

    As an American I believe that all Confederate statues and flags be removed from public property after a deliberate community-based legal process. I agree that such a process results in a public education process that is long overdue, a “Reckoning” with a disturbing past, a necessary first step to a national reconciliation regarding race in America. I am disturbed by the destruction and defacing of any monument by an angry mob, because it invites retaliation and if we are to consider ourselves a civilized people, Americans should never behave like the Taliban or Vandals. I am also a historical reenactor of the 6th Regiment United States Colored Troops. A few years ago, I approached my Confederate counter-parts with a proposal to conduct a “Retirement Ceremony” for Confederate monuments in an orderly and respectful fashion. At the end of the ceremony the Union and Confederate lines of soldiers would approach each other, salute and shake hands. As minor as this seems, the visual effect of this simple act would go a long way to easing tensions and begin the healing process of our nation. The response I got from the President of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Daughters of the Confederacy indicated that they had not reached the point in their thinking where they could participate in such a ceremony. They still believed that they could resist the tide of history and keep the Confederate monuments and flags in place on public property. Now events have inevitably overtaken them, and their worst nightmare is unfolding before their eyes. I should also note that this was also controversial among some USCT reenactors, but enough USCT saw the wisdom of such gesture that we could muster enough men to perform such a “Retirement Ceremony”. Our plan is to offer our services to any town that wants to remove their monuments in an orderly way, and begin the healing process that is sorely needed. I intend to approach the SCV and DOC again. Hopefully they can see now that this is a much better way than vandalism by a mob or unceremonious removal in the dark of night. In my view, no work of art should be defaced regardless of who it depicts and there ways to display it appropriately. The bottom line is that no one who committed treason against the United States should be commemorated on US property paid for by the taxes of US citizens.

    • Lee Jun 29, 2020 @ 18:33

      “The bottom line is that no one who committed treason against the United States should be commemorated on US property paid for by the taxes of US citizens.”

      Would you feel this way about John Brown being commemorated on U.S. property? And George Washington committed treason against Great Britain, yet there’s a statue of him at Trafalgar Square in London.

      • Algernon Ward Jr. Jun 30, 2020 @ 19:24

        John Brown was hung for his treason, but his cause, of the righteous abolition of slavery, was favored by God and paid for by the blood of a martyr. He inspired conquering legions who saved the United States from it’s birth defect. He did see America as a “guilty land” but his aim was to start an uprising against slavery not necessarily to overthrow the government. in the end, he was right, it took a bloody war to end the abomination. So would I mind of my tax dollars went to a statue of John Brown? No I would not. As you say, George Washington committed treason against Great Britain, but not the United States, if the British want him in Trafalgar Square, it’s theirs, so be it.

  • Annette Varcoe Jun 29, 2020 @ 6:40

    I think the problem your tweet suggested, and the problem with the entire debate, is that who has control over the monuments isn’t necessarily the people of the community. This is why “passionate advocates” have not been able to have a voice in their ultimate dispensation due to being blocked by the very local or state government of which they are members. Regions such as Richmond, VA, have been trying to resolve the problem of Monument Avenue for years, without ever really moving forward. (And Ed Ayers is involved in that fabulous resource about those monuments and that debate, with historical context of their creation and usage https://www.monumentavenuecommission.org/ .) The fact that many of these monuments were placed specifically to frighten/target/control groups of people, makes the question of who has a voice, and how they have a voice, especially problematic. It’s not that these memorials cannot exist at all, but their current location in public spaces, on public lands, requires them to be situated appropriately or returned to private hands. I think the majority of these Confederate monuments belong in National Parks, Museums, and private cemeteries. The first two would allow for appropriate contextualization, while the latter allows for a more open format that would make sense for the owners of some of these works. I’m thinking of the Sons and Daughters groups here who retain ownership of some of these works. They might prefer to provide their own context, which while perhaps not as appealing to me as a historian, allows them the right to voice their own point of view in private.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 29, 2020 @ 7:01

      Hi Annette,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Great points.

    • Donna Ingle Jun 30, 2020 @ 7:23

      Richmond va was the capital of the confederacy. Monument row wasn’t to hurt anyone, it was the only place to have the statues. My thought on removing these statues is that when you remove them or any history of slave owners or slave helpers like general grant, you are wiping out where you came from. What your slave ancestors worked hard for to make you the better person that you are today. You mean nothing to the world to yourself or your family if you remove them. It’s like you weren’t born, cause you have gotten rid of the very thing that in years past created ho you are

      • Algernon Ward Jr. Jun 30, 2020 @ 14:31

        Dear Donna,
        Monument row was indeed erected to hurt someone. It was erected to hurt the aspirations of freed slaves to become full American citizens. It was the reassertion of white political power to keep blacks in their place and to remind them every day that white supremacy yet ruled the south. Beyond just statues, “Jim Crow” laws were passed, a peonage economic system of sharecropping, a social caste system where discrimination was the order of the day all supported by political terrorism and murder by the KKK. Think for a moment how an African American feels when we see monuments of men who would fought to keep us be slaves forever. The hurt we feel to this day is that there are still those in America who think the Confederacy was right. Your fear of “wiping out” history is a overdone. Moving a statue does not wipe it out or destroy it. Putting it in a museum or cemetery preserves the truth of history and anyone can still see it if they wish, but my tax dollars shall not be spent on statues of men who killed US Soldiers to keep my people enslaved.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 30, 2020 @ 14:58

          Well said. Thank you.

  • Matt McKeon Jun 29, 2020 @ 4:25

    As I have written before, for years it seems, it should be the undisputed province of the communities where the monuments are placed, to decide what should happen to them. People should have control of their own public parks and spaces.

    The process should be orderly and transparent.

    • Andy Hall Jun 29, 2020 @ 7:41

      I agree, and also believe that the orderly, deliberate removal of a monument after due consideration sends a much stronger message about a community’s values and resolve.

    • Tewari_Crescent Jul 3, 2020 @ 1:14

      So if a community is predominantly white, the smaller black population should just grit their teeth and push on through everything they see these symbols in hate and oppression. I know that would be asking alot of me to di that.

  • Robin Kirk Jun 29, 2020 @ 3:18

    One element that is vital to remember is that communities can–and should–engage in a process that includes community voices. Durham, NC–which predated the Silent Sam removal–had both, protestors who pulled down a Confederate memorial and a community process, which I cochaired. Myself and my cochair saw community education and engagement as a vital part of that process, not only to educate our 12 members but most importantly to educate the majority of white citizens what the monument meant. Those of us immersed in this issue easily lose track of the fact is that most white people and many people of color don’t really know the import and history of these sites. We also did original research, for instance documenting how our statue was the only one in the country paid for with public money, since support for it (in terms of donations) was so weak. https://www.dconc.gov/county-departments/departments-a-e/board-of-commissioners/boards-and-commissions/city-county-committee-on-confederate-monuments-and-memorials-final-report

    • Kevin Levin Jun 29, 2020 @ 3:59

      Hi Robin,

      Thanks for adding your voice to this post and thanks for the hard work that you and others engaged in to educate your community. We are in complete agreement.

    • Algernon Ward Jr. Jul 2, 2020 @ 6:51

      You did it right. The way you go about it is everything, indeed it is beneficial to all concerned due the historical education involved. Good job.

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