How does it happen, though? President Trump, who defends Confederate monuments and announced by tweet Friday “a very strong Executive Order protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues,” is unlikely to lead such a transformation. If Joe Biden is elected president, however, he might seize the opportunity and create a new national program — one that models itself on a Great Depression remedy, considering the country is again in the throes of economic catastrophe. Like the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, the program could tap the immense power of the federal government to provide work as well as hope to small businesses, artists, writers and loan-strapped students as it changes the landscape of the national memory. States and localities could establish commissions to build monuments, statues and memorials. Arts and humanities councils in the states could be enlisted to pursue the creation of public art while encouraging scholarship and public forums on the struggle against slavery and racism. The business sector could participate through public-private partnerships. To coordinate the efforts, Congress and a new administration could establish a national commission — some former presidents might be persuaded to chair it.
As for whom to honor, we might start with these men and women:
Any list must include the U.S. Colored Troops. Black soldiers, whose recruitment was authorized by President Abraham Lincoln in the Emancipation Proclamation, came from every state, including nearly 100,000 from the South. There are only a few scattered memorials to the USCT, notably the beautiful bas-relief to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment on Boston Common, but there should be many more.
At the Virginia state capitol, we could build a monument to the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry, the first U.S. troops to liberate Richmond, on April 3, 1865, commanded by Col. Charles Francis Adams Jr., grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams.
The African Americans elected to the Senate and House of Representatives during Reconstruction should all be commemorated in their states. Statues of Sens. Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce, both of Mississippi, should replace those of Jefferson Davis and Alexander H. Stephens, president and vice president of the Confederacy, in Statuary Hall. Individual communities should honor those scores of Reconstruction figures, black and white, elected to state legislatures and local offices.
All that would be a good start. And then, state by state:
In Mississippi, there should be memorials to notables from the civil rights movement, including Medgar Evers, the NAACP field director murdered in 1963; James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, the civil rights workers slain in 1964; and Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. There should also be memorials of heroes going back to Reconstruction, including Adelbert Ames, the last Reconstruction governor, driven from office by a violent coup of the White Liners.
In Florida: Harry T. Moore, head of the NAACP, assassinated in 1951.
In North Carolina: Ella Baker, who trained people to register to vote; and the Greensboro Four — Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil — the students who staged the first sit-in, in 1960; but also older figures back to Albion Tourgée, jurist and lawyer, who fought for Reconstruction and challenged segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson.
In South Carolina: Sarah and Angelina Grimké, abolitionists and feminists born into the slaveholding aristocracy, and Robert Smalls, an enslaved man who became a Civil War military hero and creator of South Carolina’s public school system, elected in Reconstruction to the House of Representatives.
In Georgia: Julian Bond, the civil rights leader and member of the state legislature, which tried to expel him.
In Louisiana: The town of Colfax should have a monument to the up to 150 black Republicans massacred there in 1873 in a reign of terror. A memorial exists, but perversely it’s to three of the white terrorists: “Heroes … who fell in the Colfax riot fighting for white supremacy.”
In Tennessee: James Bevel, who organized the Nashville Student Movement that conducted the lunch-counter sit-ins against segregation in 1960 and helped organize the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade after the church bombing there that killed four girls.
In Kentucky: Whitney Young, director of the Urban League, and Carter G. Woodson, father of black history, creator of Black History Month, the first person of enslaved parents to be awarded a doctorate in America. How about a statue in Lexington to the original Cassius Marcellus Clay, who freed his slaves and led the fight for emancipation until he was violently driven from the state? A monument to one brave Confederate general, James Longstreet, would not be out of place. He became a hated man to the Lost Cause movement for leading U.S. troops in the streets of New Orleans to defend Reconstruction against the White Leaguers.
And where is the statue of Bayard Rustin, organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s confidante who was a gay liberationist, a socialist and a pacifist?
Let the monument commissions decide.
Giving new and vivid form to “the mystic chords of memory,” as Lincoln put it, would enable us to tell the truth about the old myths and the statues that represent those myths, and it would launch a project of understanding our past as an enduring part of a new struggle for justice and genuine national reconciliation. It would be a response, as King once put it, to “the fierce urgency of now.”