Take the Confederate Monuments Down. All of Them.

Enough is enough

Politics Features Robert E. Lee
Take the Confederate Monuments Down. All of Them.

It belongs in a museum!
— Indiana Jones

While discussing Charlottesville, we are forgetting the host of the event, the statue of Robert E. Lee. Lee is dead. But his spirit marches on. Adam Serwer wrote of the late General:

When two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to “lay it on well.” Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.”

There are about seven hundred public Confederate monuments in America.

Take them down. All of them.

They are brine down the back.

If I seem insistent on this, I ran out of patience this weekend. By the look of it, so did everyone else. Yesterday, the people in Durham brought down the graven image of a Confederate soldier. In Atlanta, a group of protesters surrounded the Confederate memorial in Piedmont Park and spray-painted it with red. They removed a Confederate statue, “Old Joe,” in Gainesville. There were protests near monuments in Nashville, and San Antonio.

I support bringing down these images according to the letter of law, in agreement with democratic process. But down they must come all the same.

“It’s heritage, not hate.” Guess what? This is literally my heritage. I am from the South. One family from Texas, one from Tennessee. My ancestors on both sides fought for the Confederate cause. Here is what I say: take them down, forever. As Serwer writes, “Benedict Arnold was also a talented general; Americans do not erect memorials to him in their public squares.”

Take them down.

I am from the South, and it is humiliating to deal with this reactionary, caveman bullshit. This does not reflect the people I love, the people I know, the people I grew up with. The greatest Southern virtue is politeness. These monuments are not polite. Take them all down. All seven hundred of them. Take them down in Georgia, take them down in Texas, and in Alabama. And sure as hell take them down in Montana.

If these are to honor the glorious dead, then why did the Sons of the Confederacy erect a monument in Phoenix, as late as 1999? Was there a Rebel ghost lobby advocating for that one? We know what these monuments are there for. They built a Confederate Monument in Georgetown, Delaware, in 2007. Did the gray shades rise up and ask for that?

No. Modern people did, and the message they are sending is clear.

Here’s my message: Take them down.

Let the dead lie still in their graves. They already fought in one war. Don’t enlist them for the one you’re fighting today.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said it perfectly:

They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement and the terror that it actually stood for. After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.

We didn’t keep the swastika atop the Nazi buildings for sentimental attachment. We dynamited it. We didn’t keep Saddam’s statues up, did we? No. We should apply the same logic to these monuments, too.

Most of these monuments weren’t erected right after the war, but in the Twentieth century, when white supremacy wanted to send a message to African-Americans. We know what they are, we know what these monuments mean:

From the Associated Press:

After his death, Southerners adopted “The Lost Cause” revisionist narrative about the Civil War and placed Lee as its central figure. The Lost Cause argued the South knew it was fighting a losing war and decided to fight it anyway on principle. It also tried to argue that the war was not about slavery but high constitutional ideals. As The Lost Cause narrative grew in popularity, proponents pushed to memorialize Lee, ignoring his deficiencies as a general and his role as a slave owner. Lee monuments went up in the 1920s just as the Ku Klux Klan was experiencing a resurgence and new Jim Crow segregation laws were adopted. The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, went up in 1924.

Defenders of these monuments will say: “What, should we take all monuments down? Jefferson and Washington were slaveowners.”

True. But the problem of Confederate monuments is a different kind of poison. The Jefferson Memorial is a troubling and problematic symbol of a conflicted country. It’s complicated. The Confederate statues are much simpler. They are weaponized hate made solid, physical embodiments of an institution which fought for white supremacy. They were placed deliberately to terrorize and degrade our fellow citizens. Here’s a chart that shows exactly when they got built via the Southern Poverty Law Center:


The big years are during upticks in Civil Rights: in 1909-1910, and the Sixties, when the Civil Rights movement was in full swing.

You worry about people forgetting the War?

Forget the War? What do you think this is?

Take them down.

In the Courthouse Square in Denton, Texas, there is an arch engraved with the “Our Confederate Soldiers.” From the site We Denton Do It:

“We don’t celebrate the Confederacy; we tell the story,” explains Peggy Riddle, the director at the Denton County Office of History and Culture. “It’s a monument that was placed at a time in our history to honor the Confederate soldiers.”

If they “tell the story,” then why do you tell that story? Where’s the monument for the slaves? What about Denton’s Quakertown, an African-American town that Denton evicted in 1920 to build Civic Center Park? Where’s that monument?

Nobody will forget what happened. Tell me about forgetting the War, when I see ten glossy magazines about the Civil War every week at Barnes & Noble, with titles like “Lee: Forgotten Soldier” and “Pickett’s Last Charge.” It is important to have battlefields, and reenactments, and books, and documentaries. These maintain our tie to the past. But the public monuments of this country are different. Public space is space we all share. Monuments are a language written in stone and steel, and state clearly what matters to the body politic. Having a statue in an important public place means something. It means something about who we think is important, and who we honor. This is the wrong cause to honor.

These monuments don’t retain history; they erase history. They lie. They claim the War Between States wasn’t a slave empire’s rebellion. People who defend these monuments act as if they were the embodiments of history. They’re not. They’re political middle fingers.

History’s not going anywhere. The War’s not going anywhere. Jonathan Sarna estimated in 2001 that at minimum, fifty thousand books about the Civil War had been published, with an estimated 1,500 appearing annually. Removing Confederate monuments from parks and squares does not erase history. It removes nasty symbols from public spaces where they should never have been in the first place. Take them down.

About two miles from where I write, there is an obelisk dedicated to the Confederate States of America, right in the center of Decatur, a progressive town. The monument was erected in 1908, and its west face praises the Confederacy as a “a covenant keeping race.” Next to it is an American flag. Those two things do not belong together. One goes, or the other does. We know what these monuments say to people of color and to the idea of equality. Their message is not subtle. They’re Jim Crow’s work, and should be rolled where all the work of Jim Crow goes: into the dust-bin of history.

Bring Marse Robert down from the pedestal. Take Forrest down from his perch. Strike down Jackson, and Jeff Davis, and all the other oracles of the lynching bee and lashing post. If you want to build a monument to slavery and its fanboys, do it on your own property, and keep it the hell away from the rest of us.

Take them down.

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