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.
It is much more powerful to watch local governments remove monuments than a handful of protesters.
— Kevin M. Levin (@KevinLevin) June 28, 2020
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.
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.