The question of monuments to other white supremacists is more complicated, but it’s still not rocket science. As a society, we’re perfectly capable of deciding together which must go and which can stay. This supposed “slippery slope” isn’t really slippery at all.
There is no earthly reason any of this nation’s public spaces should be defiled by statuary honoring generals, soldiers and politicians who were traitors, who took up arms against their country, who did so to perpetuate slavery, and who — this is an important point — were losers.
This was clear even to Robert E. Lee, who opposed such monuments. “I think it wiser,” he wrote in 1869, declining an invitation to help decide where to erect memorials at Gettysburg, “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”
Lee understood that the South had lost and slavery was gone. Most Confederate memorials were erected decades later, when white Southerners were reestablishing their repressive dominion over African Americans through the imposition of Jim Crow laws and a state-sponsored campaign of terrorism led by the Ku Klux Klan.
The Confederate monument in my hometown, Orangeburg, S.C., was dedicated in 1893. It is a statue of a rebel soldier atop a tall column, and the inscription, attributed to “the women of Orangeburg County” — though presumably only the white ones — calls it “a grateful tribute to the brave defenders of our rights, our honor and our homes.” The “rights” in question were to own human beings, including my ancestors, and compel their uncompensated labor. The point of erecting the monument was to reassert those “rights.” If the statue is a homage to anything, it’s hate. Take it down.
“Oh, but you’re erasing history,” defenders of such memorials always say. Nonsense. The monuments themselves are an attempt to rewrite history and assert white supremacy. Put them in some sort of Museum of Shame, if you must, but get them out of the public square.
“Oh, but if you start toppling statues, where does it all end?” defenders wail, rending their garments. This is not a hard problem to solve: It ends where we, as a nation, decide to draw the line between those historical figures who deserve to be so honored and those who do not.
There is an obvious difference between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who founded our union, and, say, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson, who tried to destroy it. The fact that Washington, Jefferson and other early presidents owned slaves should temper our admiration for them but not erase it entirely. They gave us a nation grotesquely disfigured by slavery, but they also gave us the constitutional tools, and the high-minded ideals, with which to heal that original, near-fatal flaw.
Davis, Jackson and the rest of the Confederates gave us war, destruction and suffering, all in the service of white supremacy and African American subjugation. They deserve nothing but our eternal scorn.
White Southerners who consider the memorials a matter of “heritage” should realize that many Americans have ancestors who made poor choices. Like the Germans of the Third Reich, they merit familial respect but not public honor.
What about non-Confederate historical figures who were white supremacists? If every statue of a racist were taken down, we’d mostly have empty pediments and plinths. It should depend on the person, the context and the memorial itself.
A good example is the statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced will soon be taken down. The problem is not Roosevelt himself. He was relatively enlightened for his times: He invited civil rights leader Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House, for which he was pilloried. And he did much to preserve wildlife (when he wasn’t shooting it) and our natural wonders.
The problem is the statuary itself. Roosevelt is astride a horse, and flanking him — on foot, thus beneath the great man — are a Native American man on one side and an African man on the other. The tableau amounts to a visual parable of white supremacy.
We put statues in places of honor to depict our heroes and our values. Overt racism is not an idea we honor — not in relationships and not in bronze and marble. Not anymore.