America Must Build Statues Against Slavery and Racism

News & Politics

A house divided stands symbolically in the 1,503 monuments dedicated throughout the south to leaders of the Confederacy, including the eight in Statuary Hall in Congress. Dozens of memorials extol Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Three state capitols – Alabama, Kentucky and Virginia – prominently display statues of him.

Naturally, these memorials present a sanitised view of the Confederate cause. None of them note, for example, Davis’s signing of a measure designed as “just retribution” against President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, directing that captured black union soldiers be delivered to state governments for punishment and their white officers executed.

Ten US military bases are named after Confederate officers; one honours the head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia.

These tributes to “slave power” were installed to glorify the romantic myth of the lost cause of Confederacy. They came after the crushing of democracy across the south by organised white terrorist organisations led by former Confederate officers.

These racist militias toppled Reconstruction governments, disenfranchised black people, stripped them of civil rights, and reduced them to peonage akin to slavery in a process they hailed as “redemption”. The memorials to the Confederacy, which were really markers of triumphant Jim Crow, have only now, in the 21stcentury, become a major cause of controversy.

Since a suspected neo-Nazi killed nine black people at a Charleston church in 2015 and another allegedly killed a young woman protesting against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, the movement to remove Confederate monuments has grown stronger.

President Donald Trump, however, has rebuked that effort, saying that “the history and culture of our great country [is] being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments”.

Southern communities are left to deal with a painful and seemingly intractable issue with a narrow choice of options, limited to removing the Confederate statues, keeping them as they are, or maintaining them with rewritten plaques.

But there is another policy that would address the imperatives of historical memory in an entirely constructive way, free from the fraught emotions surrounding preservation of the artefacts of the lost cause.

States and localities should establish commissions to build new monuments, statues and memorials, particularly across the south, to commemorate the heroes of the anti-slavery struggle, the unionists during the civil war, advocates for Reconstruction, foes of Jim Crow and champions of the civil rights movement.

Arts and humanities councils should be enlisted to pursue the creation of public art in other media while encouraging scholarship and public forums on the struggle against slavery and racism. The business sector should participate through public-private partnerships.

Building new monuments should become a principal effort to honour the truth about the civil war and American history. Modern historians have reached a firm consensus that the old “revisionist” views that denied slavery as the cause of the civil war and claimed Reconstruction oppressed the south are falsehoods. New statues will dramatically provide a historically accurate context for the old ones. For every Confederate statue ever built, two new ones to civil rights should be dedicated.

With another president in office there would be a proper national commission. But that cannot and should not occur under the aegis of President Trump. His long and deep history of virulent racism, his moral equivalence of white supremacists and neo-Nazis with those opposing them, and his vehemently expressed opinion of the splendour of Confederate memorials would deny legitimacy, credibility and moral authority to any gesture he might undertake towards a national commission. Trump is a source of irrepressible conflict. This project must therefore take place on the state and local level – and it will be a test of Republican officials in the south.

The creation of the new monuments will inevitably be a rebuke to the bigotry, incitement and ignorance of the present moment. In a future America these memorials will be seen as a shining light of those who made an affirmative statement on behalf of American principles and ideals to outlast a dark time.

To begin with, statues should be erected to the United States Colored Troops. Black soldiers, whose recruitment was authorised by the Emancipation Proclamation, came from every state, including 93,796 from the south. There are a few scattered memorials to the USCT, most impressively the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th regiment displayed in Boston and Washington DC, but there should be many more.

A monument comparable to that in Boston to the 54th regiment should be built at the Virginia state capitol to the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry, the first US troops to liberate Richmond on April 3, 1865, commanded by Colonel Charles Francis Adams Jr, grandson of John Quincy Adams and grandson of John Adams. Lincoln’s words on the USCT should be embossed in granite: “If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive – even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.”


The African Americans elected to the US Senate and House of Representatives during Reconstruction should all be commemorated in their states. Not one, by the way, is honoured in Statuary Hall at the US Capitol, though the president, vice president and chief general of the Confederacy are. Individual communities should honour those Reconstruction figures elected to state legislatures and local offices.

Let us now praise famous men – and women – and a child.

And, so, in Mississippi alone: Adelbert Ames, the last Reconstruction governor driven from office by a violent coup of the White Liners; Emmett Till, the 14-year-old lynched in 1955; James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, the civil rights workers slain in 1964. Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In Florida: Harry T Moore, head of the NAACP, assassinated in 1951.

In North Carolina: Albion Tourgée, jurist and lawyer, who fought for Reconstruction and challenged segregation in Plessy v Ferguson; Ella Baker, who trained people to register to vote; the four students who staged the Greensboro sit-in in 1960.

In South Carolina: Sarah and Angelina Grimké, abolitionists and feminists. In Georgia: Julian Bond.

In Alabama: at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, why not full-scale statues of the marchers who were brutally attacked by policeVirginia Durr, who arranged for Rosa Parks to be trained as a civil rights worker, and her husband Clifford Durr, civil rights attorney.

In Louisiana: why not build a monument to one Confederate general, James Longstreet, who became a hated man to the lost cause movement for leading US troops in the streets of New Orleans to defend Reconstruction against the White Leaguers?

In the town of Colfax there should be a monument to the 150 black Republicans massacred in 1873 in a reign of terror against democratic government. Currently there is a memorial to three white terrorists, “Heroes … who fell in the Colfax riot fighting for white supremacy.” And there should be another monument to Marshall Harvey Twitchell, Republican state senator, defender of Reconstruction, who lost both arms to an assassination attempt and whose brother and brothers-in-law were murdered. How about a statue on the campus of Louisiana State University to its founding superintendent – William Tecumseh Sherman?

And so on. Let the monument commissions decide.

Giving new and vivid form to “the mystic chords of memory”, as Lincoln said, will enable us to tell the truth about the old myths and the statues that represent those myths, and it will launch a project of understanding our past as part of a new struggle for justice and national reconciliation.

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