Monuments are on the move. Hallowed statues erected to perpetuate the mythology of the Lost Cause of the Southern Confederacy which for decades seemed untouchable are suddenly under threat of eviction. Symbols of racial supremacy disguised as symbols of heritage are being called out for what they are.
A groundswell of righteous anger – fueled by the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, led to the removal of the Confederate flag from the State Capitol. On May 18, New Orleans dismantled a statue of General Robert E. Lee, the last of four contested Confederate monuments in the city. In Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists protested the planned removal of another statue of the general from a downtown park. My friend Mike Berry, a pastor in Annapolis, Maryland, is part of a coalition aiming to relocate a sculpture of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, author of the notorious 1857 Dred Scott Decision, from its prominent position in the Maryland State Capitol. Apparently there are more than 700 Confederate memorials across the US, some in unexpected places such Arizona which became a state half a century after the Civil War. Over the past two years at least 60 symbols have been removed or renamed.
In perhaps the most courageous and profound statement by an elected official, Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans comprehensively deconstructed the mythology
surrounding monuments that “celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror it actually stood for.” Of the generals he said, “They may have been warriors but they were not patriots.”
The US is not alone in debating how to deal with historical symbols of white supremacy and colonialism. In April 2015, South African crowds cheered as the statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes was removed from the campus of the University of Cape Town. (He survived a similar attempt at Oxford University.) Protesters smeared white paint on a statue of King George V at the University of Kwa Zulu Natal. Paul Kruger, the Boer military hero and president of the South African Republic (Transvaal) from 1883 to 1900, was painted green.
Why do physical memorials matter and why do they stir up such deep emotions? Why do groups cling so tenaciously to historical memories that gain almost mythical proportions? Margaret Smith writes that group identity and maintaining the group “story” provides psychological security. “Regardless of the material benefits a person derives from group membership, the person will have a strong psychological proclivity to support certain narratives to keep her own psyche intact.” Although Smith is writing about Northern Ireland, the same dynamics apply in the US.
For minorities and groups that have been oppressed, the fact that current inequities are linked to the racial hierarchy glorified in monuments to guardians of slave states is a primary cause of rage. Such groups “live with a twofold curse,” says Smith. “First, the substantive ills that they are forced to live with are at least in part the result of their traumatic or unjust history; but second, the very account of that past that has entered the memory of the majority of people in the society erases or obfuscates their trauma.”
Reframing the narrative is an essential part of racial healing. Until now, conversations about changes to Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue with its imposing memorials to Jefferson Davis, and Generals Lee and Stonewall Jackson have been muted, but Mayor Stoney recently announced a commission
to study ways of “giving context” to the statues. A greater focus for the city over the past two decades has been to uncover untold history, such as the extent of Richmond’s role in the interstate slave trade as well as African American resistance and resilience. While there are different opinions about the scale and emphasis of a memorial and heritage site at the place where up to 300,000 women, men and children were sold at auction blocks, there is broad agreement that this major part of
Richmond’s history must be told fully.
Equally important is the recognition of the contribution of the black community to American life. The addition of tennis star and humanitarian Arthur Ashe to Monument Avenue, and the upcoming unveiling of a statue of the nation’s first female bank president, Maggie Walker, in the historic Jackson Ward district are good first steps.
Also powerful is the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial at the State Capitol commemorating the protests which helped to bring about school desegregation.
To what extent should we remove all visual reminders of unpleasant history? Those of us who are committed to racial healing and transformation may need to decide where best to devote our energy.
My long-time colleague in this work, Ben Campbell, says that there “two massive artifacts of the Confederacy
which need to be completely dismantled.” He highlights the Richmond Public School system which was “deliberately segregated by the state 45 years ago and has been under-resourced and mercilessly attacked ever since,” and our public transportation system, “once the envy of the world” (Richmond had the first electric streetcar system in 1888) “but now confined to just 5% of the territory of the metropolitan region.”
Statutes are as important as statues. Should priority be given to the removal of symbols or to the dismantling of policies that continue to discriminate and perpetuate inequality?
Many would point to the Dillon Rule, which, as interpreted by the Virginia General Assembly, means that local governments only have powers that are specifically conferred to them by the General Assembly. It is ironic that a state which prides its place as a birthplace of American democracy should maintain such an apparently undemocratic approach to local government.
The inability of the city to increase its property taxes through annexation, the refusal by the region’s leaders to consolidate the school districts in the early 70s, the resistance to affordable housing in county jurisdictions are all impediments to a healthy and equitable community. Some bold new thinking is needed. In 1996, Chesterfield County Supervisor Jack McHale and Richmond City Councilman Tim Kaine discussed publicly a regional wealth sharing or growth sharing proposal. Under this scheme, 40 percent of local taxes revenue on a new business coming to the region would stay in the locality in which the business was located and the remaining 60 percent would be shared equally among the other jurisdictions. The ideas did not get much traction at the time but surely this is the kind of fresh approach we should encourage.
The profound structural changes needed in the Richmond region (the city aims to reduce poverty by 40 percent by 2030) demand the support of a broad coalition that crosses traditional barriers of race and class. Removing or changing statutes, policies and institutions would involve a massive effort involving people of vastly different backgrounds and even political beliefs. As in the Civil Rights era, we must appeal to conscience and to the highest vision. Would the time and effort required to unhorse General Lee contribute to this larger task of coalition building or would it be a distraction?
Many years ago, the veteran Washington Post correspondent William Raspberry warned the fledgling Hope in the Cities network of the trap of failing to distinguish between problems and enemies. A focus on enemies “diverts time and energy from the search for solutions.” A good question to ask is, “If I defeat the enemy in the battle I have engaged, will my problems be nearer to a solution? People respond more favorably to being approached as potential allies.”
I long for the day when Monument Avenue will reflect the true glory of Virginia: the men and women of all races who fought for liberty and justice, not those who betrayed the nation in the cause of perpetuating a system of white supremacy.
But our main goal must be in the words of Dr. John Moeser
build “an inclusive city where every person is valued and no one is left behind; where all of our neighborhoods are neighborhoods of opportunity; where our schools are no longer segregated but filled with children from every level of income and who acquire the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for college or for living wage entry-level jobs; where our businesses are known for excellent job-training and a solid record of hiring Richmond residents; where innovative social enterprises comprised of worker-owned businesses are created and financed by our foundations and anchor institutions; and where public transportation links the interior of neighborhoods to major commercial and industrial thoroughfares in the city as well as the surrounding counties.”
Richmond is now taking a leading role in an emerging national process of Truth, R
. Narrative change is a necessary foundation for healing and repairing our social fabric. But we must focus on statutes as well as statues.
Margaret Smith, Reckoning with the Past, (Lexington Books, 2005)