Let’s not just tear down racist Confederate monuments. Let’s put up something better in their place.
Monuments matter. They just do.
Right now, in this moment of extraordinary reflection on systemic racism in our society arising from the quite justifiable outrage over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other African-Americans by racist police, it may seem like a lot of frothing and fuming over lumps of bronze and marble that have been standing in parks and in front of courthouses for more than a century is a waste of time and resources. It may seem especially reckless to be having this national conversation while the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed 110,000 Americans and counting, still rages. But it’s not. This needs to happen. It’s a reckoning with our past and part of a reassessment of our history. As a historian, and as a white man who has benefited greatly from the systemic racism that’s embedded in so many institutions in our society, let me make this clear: the Confederate and racist monuments all need to go. Every single one of them. But we also need to do more than that.
More than a few parks and courthouse squares in the U.S. have seen a curious nightly ritual. Men and women, some wearing masks, come in the middle of the night with cranes and jackhammers, and the next morning another bronze Lee, Forrest or Beauregard is carted away to a storehouse. Historian Al Mackey of the Student of the American Civil War blog has been documenting many of the removals, here. But when the pandemic is over (if it ever is) and the clouds of tear gas from the protests clear, we’ll be left with a lot of empty pedestals whose very emptiness will remind us of the battles we fought over them and the pain they’ve caused. So, tearing down racist monuments isn’t enough. We need to put up something else in their places that cements in our minds a new version of history, supplanting the false and disingenuous pseudohistory of white supremacism that the erection of Confederate monuments, most of them in the early 20th century, was deliberately designed to build.
The header image of this article is a large statute of Union Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman in Washington, D.C. The picture above is a Google Maps street view of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, and the statue of the man on horseback in front of it is John Brown Gordon, a Confederate general and likely head of the KKK in Georgia after the war (though he never admitted it). The statute of Gordon, erected in 1907 specifically as a response to a race riot, obviously needs to be torn down and melted into ingots. But that will leave that ugly pedestal standing there. What do we replace it with? How about William Tecumseh Sherman?
Sherman, who burned Atlanta and carved a path of destruction through the state in 1864, would be a perfect choice to honor in front of the Georgia State Capitol. It would represent a wholesale turn against the slave-owning past of Georgia and a powerful rejection of the toxic “Lost Cause” pseudo-historical myth that tries to pretend that the Civil War was about anything other than slavery. In fact, I think a statue of a gilded General Sherman on a horse, similar to the one in New York City’s Sherman Plaza, would look so good in front of the Georgia State Capitol that I’ve taken the liberty of photoshopping an image to show you how nice it would look.
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