What the Memorial Preservation Movement is Really About

In the wake of the Charleston murders in Charleston, South Carolina we witnessed a wave of Confederate flag and monument removals across the country. This continued following the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville and especially following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. A number of states, including Alabama passed Memorial Preservation legislation that prevented local communities from removing what they refer to as “war” memorials. This included Confederate monuments.

Statue of Jefferson Davis in front of the Alabama State House in Montgomery

Representatives in Alabama are now looking to strengthen its 2017 legislation following the removal of six Confederate monuments throughout the state in 2020. You can read through it for yourself. What I am interested in is a brief passage that bans any attempt to reinterpret a monument in situ or on site.

No monument that is located on public property may be relocated; removed; altered; renamed; dishonored, disparaged, or reinterpreted with competing signage, wording, symbols, objects, or other types or means of communication located at the site of the monument; or otherwise disturbed.

What I find so interesting is that this proposed revision to the legislation has nothing to do with the question of removal, but what it does do is clarify what is at stake in this ongoing controversy for monument defenders.

The proposed legislation confirms that reinterpretation through signage is not a viable solution for the individuals and organizations on both sides of the divide. For activists pushing for the removal of Confederate monuments the text of any interpretive or wayside panel will only reinforce their argument as to why the monument should be removed. In short, they don’t need a history lesson as to why the monument should be removed.

On the other hand, the preservationists view reinterpretation not as unnecessary, but as a direct threat. The assumption in the language above is that a Confederate monument doesn’t require interpretation. It speaks for itself.

This hostility toward interpretation is a clear indication that the legislators and their supporters embrace the political, racial, and cultural context that helped to give shape to their state’s Confederate monument landscape during the height of the Jim Crow era. In other words, we can assume these legislators accept the tenets of the Confederacy’s Lost Cause.

It follows that any reinterpretation of the monument is going to be viewed as a threat. The problem is that the scholarship of the past few decades has forever displaced the Lost Cause from its once high perch in our nation’s collective memory of the Civil War era. Recent scholarship on the history of Civil War monuments, including books by Adam Domby, Karen Cox, and Roger Hartley have exposed the connection between the evolution of the monument landscape and the politics of Jim Crow and the culture of white supremacy.

History is the real enemy of these people.

It also reflects a deep suspicion, if not outright disgust, with the individuals and organizations (such as Black Lives Matter) working to challenge the Lost Cause by calling for the removal of Confederate monuments.  Consider how one grassroots organization in Richmond went about interpreting Monument Avenue this past summer.

We could quibble with some of the text, but overall it does a solid job of providing the necessary historical context to better understand the monuments. I suspect the authors of this legislation would be as troubled by the text as they are by the politics of the organization responsible for these temporary markers.

In the end, if you have to resort to legislation protecting monuments and preventing any sort of interpretation for the public you’ve already lost. I’ve been told that there is competing legislation under consideration that would overturn the 2017 legislation altogether and give communities the right to make these decisions for themselves. That’s encouraging. As I have said all along, these are decision that need to be made by individual communities.

What people have come to realize is that Confederate monuments have long helped to do the work of segregation in the United States. Dismantling them, when necessary, is one small step in beginning the process of moving to a place where our public spaces reflect the shared values and history of everyone.

6 comments… add one
  • Doug Feb 17, 2021 @ 14:24

    I grew up in South Carolina. I believed in the Lost Cause although I had no idea it had a name until recently. I’m still trying to understand how I came to believe some of the things that I do. I remember discussions in history class regarding states rights etc. I can remember walking down to the state house that has markers where Sherman’s troops hit it with cannon balls. I can remember the heroic statues and paintings decorating the inside….

    Now everything that has happened and is now happening is all so disorienting.

  • Lee Hodges Feb 15, 2021 @ 10:53

    With all due respect, I don’t think one can realistically have “our public spaces reflect the shared values and history of everyone.” What, after all, does everyone agree on? Your vision, IMO, is particularly unrealistic when it comes to something like Civil War related history, where the same people–Robert E. Lee, John Brown, Nat Turner, Abraham Lincoln–are seen both as heroes and as villains by many. The best solution may be to have designated parts of communities–as opposed to a courthouse or somewhere else shared by everyone–where those with the means and the support of a significant part (not necessarily all) of the public can set up monuments to whomever they wish.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 15, 2021 @ 11:04

      Thanks for the comment. One possible solution is to move away from commemorating individuals to broader themes such as emancipation or the 14th Amendment.

      • Dan Feb 15, 2021 @ 11:59

        Kevin – I’m inclined to agree, although as a somewhat academic and a colleague of several academics, I can attest that there are significant challenges to satisfactorily conveying an historical “theme” through statuary/sculpture/signage. Put simply, larger themes can often (although they need not necessarily) tend towards the impersonal…and in attempting to personify or (literally) flesh out a theme by selecting a person or persons to embody it, you’re right back to the same difficulty, namely that the purported worth of the person to be depicted at all is almost certainly the view of but one group of the larger whole (as indeed it was when the Jim Crow era statues were raised).

        Don’t necessarily have a solution, but I find the issue fascinating.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 15, 2021 @ 12:13

          I appreciate the comment. I completely agree that such a monument would be challenging. All of this is challenging as it should be.

      • danielwalldammit Mar 6, 2021 @ 13:09

        I like that thought. It really would help if people could think more creatively about what does and what doesn’t deserve a memorial rather than focusing on who.

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