Current Affairs

It’s Time For New Monuments

Statues of racist historical figures are tumbling all over the world. Let’s replace them with monuments to civil rights heroes.

“There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu uttered these words  as part of a speech in 2015, explaining why he favored taking down a monument in New Orleans dedicated to the white supremacist paramilitaries known as the White League, who attempted to overthrow the Louisiana state government in 1874. For him and his supporters, taking down the monument not only responded to modern debates around monuments dotting Southern state capitol grounds and town squares but made sense as an attempt to imagine a better South. The debate over the statue was tumultuous, and workers who were assigned the task of taking down the statue had to wear defensive flak jackets, working by night under police protection. New Orleans’ decision to take down statues like these, dedicated to the white supremacist legacy of Southern history, stands out as an outlier. Thousands of other statues dedicated to the worst of American history continue to stand. The debate about these statues continues to be a robust one. However, it may be time for those on the Left to not only argue for why statues should be taken down, but why new ones should be put up.

The fight over statues and historical representation across the nation may seem, especially now, like a waste of time and resources. “If you pull down the statue but you do not pull down the statutes, the laws that support them, we still have issues,” argued Reverend William Barber II in 2017 during the height of the debate over Confederate statues after the Charlottesville murder of Heather Heyer. This is definitely true—the fight against white supremacy will not be won until the ideas that buttress such a system are so thoroughly discredited as to never again pose a threat to American society. However, putting up new statues across the South can help in this regard, as it changes the lens through which so many Americans understand their own past. It is long past time for the building of new monuments to several important leaders in the struggle for civil, political, and human rights across the South, many of whom have been largely ignored by mainstream histories of the South and the United States. 

Art by Seb Westcott.

Historians have pointed to the history of Confederate monuments as a chief example of how white supremacy has been upheld through cultural practices since the end of the American Civil War. Karen Cox, one of the leading historians on the rise and utility of Confederate monuments, has linked the proliferation of these statues to modern problems with racism and prejudice in modern society. Her book Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture has become a landmark in the field of what can be called “Confederate Studies”—an attempt to reckon with how a short-lived attempt to build a new nation has reverberated for generations. In an op-ed for the New York Times in 2017, shortly after the Charlottesville march, Cox explained how these statues and the ideology behind them have long had a political cost. “Confederate ‘heritage,’ as a unifying theme for the South,” writes Cox, “also obscures the way that white elites use the white working class to do their bidding by pitting them against those with whom they have more in common economically than those in power.” 

Cox and other historians have brought context and analysis to these statues, many of which have marked the Southern landscape for generations. David Blight in Race and Reunion, or Adam Domby in The False Cause, among many other scholars, have pointed to the long-standing links between the movements to raise these statues, and the tendency throughout Southern history towards the defence of white supremacy.  Instead of thinking of them merely as statues that tell the history of the Southern past, the statues themselves—like so much of Southern society—uphold a version of white supremacy that erases virtually all resistance to that society. 

There is already talk, for example, of building a monument in South Carolina to famed American Civil War hero Robert Smalls in South Carolina. (Smalls, who as a slave led the capture of the Confederate naval vessel The Planter and navigated it safely to a Union fortification, became a noted politician and activist for civil rights during the Reconstruction era). A movement towards a more inclusive idea of who should be memorialized, however, will also mean an honest and forthright reckoning with the past. This means not just remembering our past, but also includes tying what has happened in the past to events in the present—something which was, in fact, at the heart of many ceremonies dedicating Confederate and other statues across the South in the late 19th and 20th centuries, but would today mean properly honoring freedom fighters who resisted white supremacy and oppression. 

For a handful of Southern states, I shall recommend at least one person who deserves a statue. These heroes and heroines of the past acted in solidarity with other oppressed groups and peoples, and were usually persona non grata in many parts of the South. Some figures will likely be known to at least a few readers of this magazine. Others, however, have still not received their full due as members of the long struggle across the South to save the region from the white supremacy and crushing hypercapitalism that has long defined the region. 

Coming back to South Carolina, several figures emerge as potential candidates for recipients of a statue. Freedom fighters such as Modjeska Simkins and Septima Clark both deserve a statue on the Statehouse grounds of Columbia, South Carolina. Simkins was a critical leader in the fight for human rights in South Carolina throughout the 20th century, often sought after as an ally by civil rights advocates for decades.  She often connected the civil rights movement to human rights struggles across the world. Argued Simkins, “The masses are crushed by politicians who don’t understand homelessness or poverty.” When she was accused of working with communists during the Cold War, Simkins instead defended her need to work with anyone trying to destroy the pernicious regime of Jim Crow. Septima Clark, likewise, was a stalwart for education and Black freedom throughout her life, leading citizenship workshops that educated African Americans across the South about their rights as American citizens. Born and raised in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, Clark received training at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee and, after losing her teaching job due to her activism, became a prominent proponent of the importance of literacy for hundreds of thousands of Americans to be able to practice their rights as citizens.  

Georgia will likely one day build a statue dedicated to adopted native son and legendary activist John Lewis. While most Americans today remember his heroism on the Edmund Pettis Bridge during the “Bloody Sunday” police attack on protestors in 1965, such a statue should also mark how radical Lewis was in comparison with other civil rights leaders. His speech at the 1963 March on Washington, for example, was seen by many civil rights leaders and the John F. Kennedy administration as being too radical. Lewis refused to let Americans forget the true stakes of the movement for freedom and justice in the 1950s and 1960s. Lewis thundered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, “My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution.” Lewis continued on in his speech to condemn both major parties. “But what political leader can stand up and say, “My party is the party of principles”? For the party of Kennedy is also the party of (James) Eastland. The party of (Jacob) Javits is also the party of Goldwater.  Where is our party?” “Where,” Lewis lamented, “is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?”

Florida could, finally, erect a statue to Harry T. Moore and Harriette V.S. Moore. This husband and wife crusading team were murdered on Christmas night, 1951, by a bomb that destroyed their home. The two were important leaders for civil rights activism in Florida, a state that is often overshadowed in the histories of civil rights that emphasize Alabama or Mississippi. Harry Moore founded the NAACP chapter in Brevard County, Florida, and led the Progressive Voters League, an organization dedicated to mobilizing African American voters. Both were instrumental in strengthening the state NAACP organization in the late 1940s.  Both worked as educators, and both lost their jobs due to their activism. In 2016, the Orlando Sentinel opinion writer Beth Kassab called on the state legislature to erect a statue to Harry Moore, arguing that he “was ahead of his time.” 

A statue offers an opportunity to not just memorialize someone for their actions, but it is also the best chance to educate more Americans about the nation’s checkered past. A monument to the Moores would be a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice some civil rights activists had to make in the fight against white supremacy. The Moores led the Brevard County chapter of the NAACP during an era of both entrenched defense of Jim Crow segregation, and another Red Scare that threatened to drive out numerous devoted members of the movement. Socialists, communists, and others on the Left were the most stalwart of allies for members of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1930s and 1940s, but were often the first ones targeted by reactionary politicians during the early Cold War era for purging from these movements. 

The history of the American South is one that often erases people who resisted white supremacy, regardless of their own race. Somewhere, a statue should be dedicated to the 100,000 white Southerners who fought for the Union during the American Civil War. General George Thomas, a white Virginian who (unlike Robert E. Lee) fought for the Union, has a statue in Washington D.C. Individual states, however, should also devote some space in their memorial exhibits to people who did not desert the nation in its hour of greatest need. Their presence would move along the process of acknowledging the bravery and sacrifice of those who fought for a nation where there was at least a chance of African American freedom and advancement. 

The point of erecting these monuments would not be to “erase” the past, an accusation often lobbed at those who wish for Confederate statues to be torn down, as some who argue against taking down statues point out. Instead, it would be to provide a balance to the narrative—a way for people to understand that, contrary to what popular culture and some versions of mainstream history tell you, the American South has not merely been a place of white supremacy, terrorism, and fear. There have always been Southerners who fought back, doing their best to resist and save the South from its worst impulses. Giving people an understanding of the past that centers movements of revolution and change pushes Americans in the here and now to consider what they can do to make a difference. 

This would also provide an impetus to craft a statue to Anne Braden in Kentucky. Braden was a long-serving activist who fought for human rights for decades, often alongside better-known activists such as Coretta Scott King. One element of Braden’s story that is especially important is that, as a white woman who grew up in the Jim Crow South, she was not afraid once reaching adulthood to question what she once accepted as the typical way of things. Her revolt against Southern white supremacy was slow, but it became a hallmark of her adult life. Braden’s story is also critical to know because, like the many others in this list, it pushes forward the knowledge of how much sacrifice has to be made in order to make significant change in society. She and her husband, Carl Braden, offering aid to an African American family trying to purchase a home outside of Louisville, Kentucky, were branded as communists and charged along with several others for sedition. While the charges against them were eventually dropped, that only happened after a lengthy and excruciating legal process—which included Carl himself being sentenced to 15 years in prison before the charges were overturned. 

Southerners, black and white, have long prided themselves on a pride in their regional identity that, at times, can seem perplexing to the rest of the United States. For African Americans and progressive whites alike, this pride in being a Southerner means looking the past square in the eye and declaring that history alone will not decide our fates. “My grandfather and my great-grandfather,” noted Martin Luther King, Jr. in a 1967 sermon, “did too much to build this nation for me to be talking about getting away from it.” Here, King delivered a rebuke to Black nationalists arguing for repatriation to Africabut it was also a classic refrain for African Americans who love the South but can’t stand what the South has been. Or, as South Carolina State Representative Joe Neal argued in 2015, when in the aftermath of the Charleson massacre the state government debated taking down the flag: “My heritage is based on a group of people who were brought here in chains. Who were denigrated, demagogued, lynched and killed, denied a right to vote, denied the right even to have a family.” 

Building a truly “new” South means incorporating a new pantheon of heroes and heroines. This doesn’t mean they’ll be exempt from criticism and analysis. On the contrary, the point should be to make sure that future generations of Southerners understands the need to continually fight to remake the South—even if it means a deeper interrogation of what it means to be a Southerner. To do that, we need new figures to look to, and new heroes that everyone can emulate. 

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