The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tearing down these statues will be history, too. Let’s make it one we’re proud of.

An image of George Floyd is projected on the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia.
An image of George Floyd is projected on the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia. (Jay Paul/Reuters)

HONORING IS different from remembering. Reevaluating our country’s landscape of statues doesn’t have to mean erasing history — if that reevaluation is done lawfully, carefully and with an eye toward honestly preserving the past and forging a better future.

Recent weeks have seen protesters dismantling monuments across the country, yanking figures from their pedestals, setting them aflame and even tossing them into lakes. It is easy to understand why people racked by pain and anger at this nation’s endemic racism should want to cast out the iron and bronze glorifications of men who fought to keep men, women and children enslaved. Yet the questions these removals ask of us are often more complicated than whether Robert E. Lee should get to stand proudly outside courthouses and capitols.

Many of the memorials besieged today — tributes to Lee, or Stonewall Jackson, or Jefferson Davis — were erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the turn of the 20th century as civil rights for minorities advanced too far for the majority’s comfort. This was itself a rewriting of history: an attempt to compose a new mythology of the “lost cause” and vindicate the rebels.

Filmmaker Ken Burns reflects on James Baldwin's understanding of liberty, and how our most venerated monuments can remind us of where America falls short. (Video: The Washington Post)

Yet the traitors hailed as heroes of times gone by aren’t the only ones getting toppled. Ulysses S. Grant — the commanding general of the Union Army — has been torn down; protesters have aimed for Andrew Jackson; Thomas Jefferson and George Washington have been pulled to the ground. The pain and anger born of years of oppression, it seems, extend beyond the most obvious icons of the Confederacy to our Founding Fathers — who espoused freedom and equality even as they held human beings in chains.

We think a distinction can be drawn between Davis, who earned his fame leading states that seceded so they could keep slavery alive, and Washington, who earned his leading states that banded together to form a nation conceived in liberty, even if that nation still hasn’t lived up to those ideals. But these aren’t lines easily drawn by a crowd in the middle of the night, consisting not always only of good-faith protesters but also of chaos-hungry opportunists. Rather, they are determinations suited for democratic and deliberative decision-making.

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The process must be open and transparent, with opportunities for public input and discussion before elected officials decide who deserves a prominent perch in their plazas. The Charleston, S.C., City Council, for instance, approved on Tuesday the removal of a John C. Calhoun statue. Other localities, however, have refused to act — and sometimes state legislatures have prohibited cities and counties from acting. Those at all levels of government should allow communities to reckon with history lawfully if they are to continue to condemn protesters for doing so lawlessly.

Some opposed to altering much of anything about our architectural scenery argue that scrapping statues we don’t like is irresponsible: We should grapple with our history, not erase it. Indeed, even the fact that the Daughters of the Confederacy were warping history in 1905 is part of history, and citizens ought to learn about it. But this doesn’t mean we must keep what we don’t like about ourselves on a pedestal. That implies that these atrocities, even today, are what we as a society value rather than what we regret.

There are solutions. Some statues might be relegated to museums. Others might reside in an outdoor space committed to cataloguing a disgraceful era; Lithuania’s Grutas Park displays more than 80 statues that communists installed when the country was controlled by the U.S.S.R. Other memorials, perhaps, can remain where they are today, but with plaques that add context — or complemented by tributes to those who fought for justice, not against it.

This isn’t a matter of papering over history but of understanding it and teaching it. What we do today will someday be history, too. We ought to make it one we can be proud of.

Read more:

Sean Kennedy: Lincoln Park’s memorial to the Great Emancipator should stand

Eugene Robinson: There is no earthly reason this nation should be defiled by Confederate statues

Karen Attiah: Monuments of white supremacy obscure the history of colonial crimes. That’s why they must come down.

Robert W. Lee IV: Robert E. Lee is my ancestor. Take down his statue, and let his cause be lost.

Henry Olsen: The anti-statue movement has taken a turn into absurdity

Christine Emba: Memorials to white supremacy are falling. What will replace them?