Let Some Confederate Monuments Stand

A few days after the white nationalist rally held in support of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville that turned violent, a group of demonstrators toppled the statue of a Confederate soldier outside a courthouse in Durham, North Carolina. Video footage of the incident shows protesters spitting on the fallen statue while others stomped on it. I do not condone vandalism. But I find many Confederate monuments troubling. In my view, they often reinforce a false narrative that ignores unpleasant facts about the Civil War and the motives of the Confederacy.

In downtown Augusta, Georgia, for instance, the Augusta Confederate Monument stands over 70-feet tall. Part of the inscription on its base reads:

For the honor of Georgia
For the rights of the States
For the liberties of the South
For the principles of the Union, as these were handed down to them,
By the fathers of our common Country.

NO NATION ROSE SO WHITE AND FAIR: NONE FELL SO PURE OF CRIME.

Our Confederate Dead

Slavery was among the “rights” that the Confederate States of America fought to preserve, and the idea that it was a nation that rose “white and fair” and fell “so pure of crime” is grossly misleading. Monuments like these lack context, which probably explains why white nationalist groups seem to value them. So what should cities like Augusta and Charlottesville do with their Confederate monuments? Nothing? Remove them? One possible alternative is to install plaques in front of Confederate statues that put them in proper historical context.

During a recent press conference, President Trump pointed out that many historical figures owned slaves and suggested that removing monuments that have links to slavery is a slippery slope. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week and Thomas Jefferson the week after?” Mr. Trump remarked. President Trump’s comment reveals how difficult it is to separate the institution of slavery from American history. In fact, slavery in America existed for roughly 240 years (1619–1865). Some argue that removing Confederate monuments is an attempt to erase history. But if removing a Confederate memorial erases history, then surely the absence of monuments that acknowledge the experiences and accomplishments of many African-Americans ignores history completely.

The Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization, plans to build a national memorial to victims of lynching in Montgomery, Alabama. It is expected to open in 2018. I would argue that commissioning more memorials like this will expand and clarify our understanding of American history.

Nat Turner was an enslaved African-American who led a rebellion of slaves and free blacks in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. I would argue that there ought to be memorials that recognize his role in history, particularly in Virginia given that the first African slaves were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown. According to a report by The Atlantic, The Whitney Plantation near Wallace, Louisiana is the first and only U.S. museum and memorial to slavery. Why aren’t there more? I see no reason for those that are solely concerned about preserving history to oppose adding plaques to Confederate monuments, relocating some of them, and erecting additional monuments that offer a fact-based, comprehensive account of America’s past.

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