From Charleston to Minneapolis, America grapples with symbols of slave-owning past
The endeavor to remove racist monuments from the public square is gaining momentum
The Undefeated turned 5 this week and is marking the occasion with a series of essays looking at the last five years in Black America.
Last month, former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all counts in the murder of George Floyd, the Black man who died after Chauvin knelt on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.
Video of Floyd’s death was seen around the world and people fed up with systemic racism and police brutality responded with widespread protests. In America, protesters ripped down Confederate monuments and the country was forced to continue the conversation about its own white supremacy and its manifestation in the form of those monuments.
The push to publicly remove monuments tied to America’s slave-owning past is long overdue, but it peaked in the last five years. Some were removed by local governments while others were toppled from their pedestal by protesters in the name of racial justice. In some instances, protesters moved to create countermonuments, casting holographic images of Floyd over Confederate statues.
Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported that more than 100 Confederate symbols were removed across the United States in 2020. Most of them came down after Floyd’s killing in May 2020.
Atlanta-based political scientist and legislator Robert Holmes’ career spans more than three decades in the Georgia House of Representatives. He’s seen the fight to remove oppressive public structures firsthand. In an interview, Holmes said the massacres in Charleston, South Carolina; Charlottesville, Virginia; and most recently, the killing of Floyd, have reinvigorated the movement.
“Maybe what happened with [the Chauvin verdict] is something that might resonate,” he said. “Even though it’s way overdue, I do believe that this is the beginning of something that’s good and will be good for the nation.”
Last summer, the Society of Architectural Historians released a statement in support of removing Confederate statues from public spaces – something never before done in the organization’s 80-year history. In its words, “Confederate monuments do not serve as catalysts for a cleansing public conversation; rather, they express white supremacy and dominance, causing discomfort and distress to African American citizens who utilize the public spaces occupied by these monuments.”
For so long, the cries to remove oppressive public symbols – many of which were erected in response to the civil rights movement – have been ignored. But over the last five years, as the nation was rocked by highly publicized incidents of police brutality and racial injustice and widespread protests, there has been a renewed interest in reckoning with America’s original sin.
Before the Black Lives Matter mantra became socially acceptable to the greater part of the nation and black squares populated Instagram timelines, the Charleston massacre happened. In 2015, 21-year-old Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. It’s the moment that the SPLC points to as the catalyst for the push to remove Confederate symbols across the nation.
A digital manifesto believed to be Roof’s, titled The Last Rhodesian, included pictures of Roof posing with weapons and Confederate flags. Those visuals caused a ripple effect – a grassroots effort to remove Confederate symbols throughout the nation and ultimately a much-needed conversation about America’s relationship with those flags and the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. South Carolina officials, including then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, acted first, vowing to remove the Confederate flag from State House grounds: “… it should have never been there. These grounds are a place that everybody should feel a part of. What I realized now more than ever is people were driving by and felt hurt and pain,” she told CNN at the time.
The past five years have been tumultuous, to say the least. In the midst of a polarizing presidential election, a pandemic and worldwide calls for racial equity, America took a look in the mirror in an attempt to see itself for what it truly was (and what it wasn’t).
After America voted its first Black president, Barack Obama, into office, the pendulum swung back, ushering reality television star Donald Trump into presidency in 2016. News outlets ran think pieces on the role racism played throughout the campaign trail and his presidency and how it emboldened white supremacists.
Meanwhile, Black Americans were still reeling from high-profile, deadly police encounters, with names such as Michael Brown Jr., Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott and countless others dominating headlines. There were protests from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore.
Two years after Charleston, then-New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration oversaw the removal of four Confederate statues, such as those dedicated to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. During a news conference, Landrieu said the structures “celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy” and removing them is how the nation moves forward with healing. “After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn,” Landrieu said.
A flame was being fanned as other politicians followed in Haley’s and Landrieu’s footsteps, and it finally came to a head in 2017. Charlottesville city leaders planned to remove a statue of Lee from a public park. An angry mob descended on the city, ending with James Alex Fields Jr. deliberately driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters and killing activist Heather Heyer. The protest, known as Unite the Right, drew white nationalist protesters from 35 states, according to a study by the Anti-Defamation League.
In response, President Trump talked about the “display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” Soon after, he doubled down in opposition to renewed calls to remove Confederate statues and monuments from public spaces, blaming “both sides” for the violence. The former president also noted his support for preserving monuments dedicated to Confederate soldiers and leaders.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump tweeted. “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson?”
According to The Washington Post, 36 monuments were removed in 2017, with a lull in 2018 and 2019 during which only eight monuments were removed. During this time, the nation’s attention shifted to the #MeToo movement. There were wildfires destroying California, but also, America’s first memorial dedicated to victims of lynching.
But as the taste of Charleston and Charlottesville were still in our mouths, the killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked outrage across the world. Confederate monuments and symbols of white supremacy came crashing down from the Minnesota State Capitol to the United Kingdom.
Call it a domino effect. According to the SPLC’s updated record in the U.S., 94 monuments were brought down throughout 2020.
For example, the University of Alabama removed a Confederate statue from the heart of its campus after students launched a petition to rename university buildings after Black former students such as Vivian Malone Jones, Autherine Lucy and author Zora Neale Hurston.
They’re not alone. In response to calls for racial equality, colleges across the nation, including Clemson, Princeton and the University of Texas at Austin, have worked to scrub their campuses of the names of racist leaders and segregationists. Even NASCAR banned the Confederate flag from its races, releasing a statement last June saying, “The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment.”
The protest against racist symbols even reached Europe. British protesters not only brought down the 18-foot-tall statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston, they also covered it in paint before pushing it into Bristol Harbor. In Belgium, a 150-year-old statue of colonist King Leopold was set on fire, covered in paint and ultimately removed from a public square.
In early April, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the city of Charlottesville could remove Confederate statues, including the monument of Lee. On the Charlottesville City Council website, City Manager Chip Boyles called the ruling a victory for the city.
“I and my administration will work diligently to plan the next steps, in coordination with City Council,” Boyles wrote. “We also look forward to engaging our community in the redesign of these park spaces in a way that promotes healing and that tells a more complete history of Charlottesville.”
State law, Confederate memorial organizations and advocates of the Lost Cause stand in the way of their complete removal. But as the events from the last five years have pushed more people to rewrite America’s already rewritten history, the tides will continue to change.
Boston University professor Daniel Bluestone imagines a future in which countermonuments stand in public spaces, challenging the narrative of the Confederate monuments already there. A historian and preservationist, Bluestone believes there’s a power in permanent, physical structures. Monuments of Black historical figures such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and even Obama could do a better job of contextualizing our complicated history than a simple plaque or educational program.
“[History] changes through time as the people who observe it change through time,” he said. “There’s the sense, when you talk about preservation or you talk about monuments, ‘Oh, they want to hold everything the same.’ But that’s hubris. You can’t do that, because the world around us changes.”
Temporary countermonuments are something activists have experimented with within the last few years. After Floyd’s murder, CNN reported about a hologram of Floyd that was cast over a defaced statue of Lee in Richmond, Virginia. It’s a step in the right direction, Bluestone argues, but temporary fixtures don’t “sufficiently present and use the power of the physical stuff of monuments, memorials and buildings.”
He’s studied the controversy over Civil War monuments, and given the response over the last five years, isn’t hopeful that countermonuments will attract the necessary funding or support. In an alternate universe, America’s wealthy would commission artists to create this kind of public art.
But for now, taking them out of the public eye is enough. Maybe they sit in a museum, Bluestone suggests, noting that, “It’s not erasing history, it’s just taking it off the 100% location next to the courthouse or on the public square.
“We’re looking with new eyes – newly political eyes – particularly on Confederate monuments and memorials or other symbols of racism or hate [in] our history. Those have a different resonance based on who we are today,” he said.
Their removal shows society is no longer complicit with the message of white supremacy. But to truly move forward, we have to create a new narrative. For every statue of Robert E. Lee, Americans deserve a monument of Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. For every Stonewall Jackson, Americans deserve a homage to Ruby Bridges, the first African American student to integrate an elementary school in the South. She is still alive and deserves flowers while she breathes.
More than 1,000 Confederate monuments still stand. As Holmes puts it, “We’ve seen progress, but we’re always going to need the allies.”