The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We don’t erase history by pulling statues down. We do it by putting them up.

A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stands in the middle of a traffic circle on Monument Avenue in Richmond. (AP)

Vice President Pence struck a somber note Tuesday morning on “Fox & Friends” when he was asked about the removal of Confederate statues. “It’s important that we remember our past and build on the progress that we have made,” Pence said, arguing for putting “more monuments” up instead of taking existing monuments down. But if Pence is really committed to Americans developing and maintaining a strong, genuine sense of our history, then he should rule against statues that distort our past.

When America’s white nationalist movements chose to rally around a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville last weekend — and one of their number allegedly drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and wounding 19 more — they forced a long-developing debate about monuments and memorials to the history of the Confederacy and its aftermath into a new and dramatic phase. It has become virtually impossible to deny that the monuments are exactly what the white nationalists take them to be: symbols of white supremacy. 

The whole point of Confederate monuments is to celebrate white supremacy

At the same time, a different and more high-minded meaning is often ascribed to statues, busts and various public spaces named for Lee, Jackson, Jefferson Davis and many others. According to some, like Pence, who argue for keeping the monuments where and as they are, to remove them would be to forget or erase part of American history, however painful. 

As a lifelong reader of plaques, visitor of monuments and walker of battlefields, I suppose this kind of argument is aimed at people like me. The raising of monuments to protagonists of whatever cause is a poignantly human task, however bad the motives. And it becomes more poignant as time changes its meanings. The arch of Titus in Rome commemorates the destruction and despoiling of the temple of Jerusalem — a massive act of violence celebrated to display the power behind the violence. But, by now, no crime could be reassessed or redressed by pulling it down: It has become part of ancient history, which we preserve without prejudice to its meaning.

Yet when Americans sympathetic to preserving the monuments of the Confederacy talk about preserving history, I can’t help but think about the history we have not taken any similar care to preserve, let alone celebrate. 

Keep Confederate statues in congress: They let us know some states are proud of their racism

Take Fort Pillow. You can only get to Tennessee’s Fort Pillow State Park if you really mean to. Well off the highway north from Memphis, past the state prison, it sits near the end of a state road that outran a pretty solid national cellphone carrier’s data network. So I discovered last year when I visited the site, home of a 1864 Civil War battle that ended in a massacre of the fort’s heavily black garrison. I visited out of historical interest in, and a kind of civic piety for, the battle and its aftermath. It caused such an uproar that Congress investigated the massacre and President Abraham Lincoln suspended prisoner exchanges. And, I admit, I came with a deeper curiosity: I wanted to see how the massacre was commemorated. 

It’s a dignified but modest site in which layers of historical interpretation survive, one on top another. Its main thoroughfare is named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the commander of the forces that committed the atrocities and, after the war, founder of the Ku Klux Klan. When the park was established, Forrest was still a hero of the Confederacy — wily, aggressive, giving no quarter, but not remembered as a monster. A later generation of installations preserves the events of the massacre with a painfully balanced, understated approach. The more modern visitor’s center is clear that many Union troops were killed during or after their surrender, with black soldiers making up a greatly disproportionate share of the slain. They are remembered by name in a small but solemn commemorative display. A marker indicates that Fort Pillow has been a national historic site since the 1970s, over a hundred years after its dead were heaped in a mass grave below the earthworks. Sometimes historic memory looks like a massive bronze statue on a pedestal. Sometimes it looks like a small, modest plaque on a remote, overgrown hillside.

How did Robert E. Lee go from general to demi-god?

The truth is that there is a great deal of history we have chosen, or allowed ourselves, to forget. The Fort Pillow garrison, I learned, consisted not only of whites and former slaves together, but Northerners and southern Unionists together. While Forrest’s statue stands tall in Memphis, his bust keeps watch at the state capitol and his name graces numerous schools, the names of those who opposed him at such terrible cost remain obscure. This was not an oversight. It was, and is, intentional. Attempts to paint a more complete picture of Ben Tillman, the violent post-Reconstruction governor and senator, at his monument at the South Carolina state house have been rebuffed over the last few years. The monument to the people who lost their lives resisting him is, like Fort Pillow, much newer and far away. History, like the people who inherit it, inhabits neighborhoods of more and less prominence.

Just as white America never sustained any attempts at justice for the freed people and their descendants, there has never been a true public accounting of the history that took place around and against those nobly mounted men of bronze. Any argument to preserve them in their places of honor and prominence, however earnestly protective of “history,” must first acknowledge that their very presence served to help people not to remember but to forget. Until that forgetting is undone, they will never do anything else.