Monuments are not mere markers of history; they are instruments of memory. Whom we choose to memorialize says a great deal about who we are as a people. Addressing Amherst College in 1963, President John F. Kennedy said: “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.” Choosing to remove offensive monuments is a decision that should not be made lightly. But leaving them standing is also a decision.
Contemporary scholarship has done a great deal to clear up the revisionist history that prevailed from the post-Reconstruction era through the 20th century. In lieu of a full history lesson, here is a simple fact: every one of the Southern states cited the preservation of slavery as the reason for secession. Slavery, not states’ rights, was the foundational idea of the South. The Confederacy and its political and military leaders—including Robert E. Lee—do not deserve to be memorialized.
As Columbia University historian Eric Foner, the foremost scholar on the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, has pointed out, statues of Lee and others were erected decades after the war as tributes to a racist cause, idols to white supremacy. That’s why Lee, who wrote “that wherever you find the negro, everything is going down around him, and wherever you find a white man, you see everything around him improving,” is so lovingly treated by the bigoted monument makers, while his close associate, General James Longstreet, who joined the Republican party after the war, supported suffrage for Black men, and did battle on the streets of New Orleans against white supremacists, is hardly remembered.
Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented 718 Confederate monuments and statues across the United States, many erected during the Jim Crow era. Dozens of these are at colleges and universities. Upon their return to campus this month, some students may deface or destroy these monuments, a violation of the rule of law and troubling, as all vigilante actions are.
As Americans, it should be our goal to educate students to help form a more perfect union, free from the white nationalist and neo-Nazi hatred that exploded in Charlottesville. University administrations should take action to remove these statues immediately, not just to preempt possible vandalism, but because it is the right thing to do.
Commendably, of late, several schools have already taken this overdue step. The University of Texas at Austin removed four monuments—to General Lee, General Albert Sidney Johnston, Confederate cabinet member John Reagan, and Texas Governor James Hogg—earlier this month with university president Greg Fenves saying that it had become clear that “Confederate monuments have become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism.” Similarly, after a statue of General Lee in the campus chapel was vandalized, Duke University President Vincent Price wrote that he was ordering the statue’s removal in order “to express the deep and abiding values of our university.” Bronx Community College in New York City removed the busts depicting Generals Lee and Stonewall Jackson from the college’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Maine’s Bowdoin College moved a plaque honoring alumni who fought for the Confederacy.
There are those on the right who ask, facetiously (and those on the left who ask, in earnest): shouldn’t monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson also come down? After all, they owned slaves. Woodrow Wilson segregated federal government workers. Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered the internment of over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Should tributes to these former presidents also be expunged? Absolutely not. The distinction is clear. Washington, Jefferson, Wilson, and Roosevelt were certainly not flawless. Who is? But, unlike the leaders of the Confederacy, none of them betrayed their country to break up the nation and advance the evil cause of institutionalized racists. The next statues I see that celebrate Washington’s or Jefferson’s slaveholding, laud Wilson’s racism, or lionize FDR for Japanese-American internment will be the first. Not so for Confederates, who are honored not despite their racist acts, but because of them.
After the tributes to Confederate leaders are removed, a number of plinths will stand empty, and some buildings will need new names. Instead of honoring Confederates, who put their racist ideology ahead of their loyalty to their country, we should erect new monuments to the real heroes of that era, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frances Gage, and of course, General James Longstreet, with explanations of the moral courage they displayed.
Students of all backgrounds returning to their studies should arrive on campuses that have actively rejected the painful legacy of white supremacy and have made clear that all are welcome.