For decades, there has been a call for the removal of Confederate statues, especially in areas with large populations of Black Americans. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and many others before him, calls for removing Confederate monuments from public spaces began to garner national attention. Removal of these monuments has been controversial and has faced opposition from those who see the statues as symbols of their heritage or important commemorations of American history. However, if we look at the unwritten rules of history, most of these statues should not exist in the public spaces they occupy. When a land is conquered or there is a change in government through conflict, the winning side destroys imagery of its opposition. Why doesn’t this apply to the American Civil War when it comes to the Confederate side?
One group is credited with commissioning and placing these monuments around the country: the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). The group was founded in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1894 with the intention of raising funds for Confederate veterans and assisting their descendants. But their mission soon evolved into what is called “revisionist history.” With few veterans left to keep the memory of the Confederacy alive, the UDC’s mission shifted to raising funds to create Confederate monuments and textbooks that promoted the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression” in public schools.
But how was the group able to erect these statures in public places? You would expect to see such monuments in Confederate cemeteries, but not on the front steps of government buildings. The women who made up the UDC were often respected women of their communities. As such, they were able to raise funds and work with government officials to have these monuments placed in very visible public spaces.
Many of these statues were erected during the Reconstruction era or during Jim Crow. The Nathan Bedford Forest statue, which once occupied what is now the Health Sciences Park in Memphis, Tennessee, was erected in 1905. The year prior, Forest’s and his wife’s bodies were moved from their original resting place to the park. In the 1970s and 80s, there were calls for the removal of the statue. By the time the City of Memphis voted for its removal, however, laws had been created that made it difficult to remove Confederate statues in Tennessee. It was not until December 2017 that the statue was removed when the city sold the land to a local nonprofit.
Not all monuments are easily removed, though. Currently, there are calls to remove the Confederate Memorial carved into the face of Stone Mountain in Georgia. Those who reject this idea defend the monument as local history and a monument to the Civil War. However, supporters of its removal point out that none of the men carved in the stone are from Georgia, and no battles were fought around Stone Mountain. Others who reject its removal have concerns with the integrity of the wall face, cost of removal, its artistic significance, and fears of violent protests.
It is unusual that the U.S. government allowed the losing side in the Civil War to place monuments to people who were considered traitors. Many contemporary public works of art have been removed quickly because a handful of people found them offensive, but this is not the case with Confederate statues. How should the United States proceed with the thousands of Confederate statues that remain in public places? Should state laws block the desires of the communities, especially when these communities are predominantly Black? This issue will not disappear. It will not be resolved until the country recognizes and deals with the motivations behind the monuments.
Questions for Discussion
- Travel around an area or city you frequent. What kind of public statues or monuments are visible? Who created them, and what, or whom, are they memorializing?
- After reading the article and doing your own research, what should communities do about such memorials? Defend both sides of the argument for keeping and for removing the monuments.
- What other types of statues or artworks have been removed from public spaces? Discuss a piece and the reason it was removed. Explain why you agree or do not agree with its removal.
Little, Becky. “How the US Got so Many Confederate Monuments.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 17 Aug. 2017, www.history.com/news/how-the-u-s-got-so-many-confederate-monuments
McCarthy, Author: Caitlin. “The ‘Lessons’ of the United Daughters of the Confederacy Still Have Influence Today in the Mid-South.” Local 24 Memphis, 9 Sept. 2020, www.localmemphis.com/article/news/local/the-lessons-of-the-united-daughters-of-the-confederacy-still-have-influence-today-in-the-mid-south/522-aa3185da-142b-48b2-b64e-f44fa70e5309
McKinney, Debra. “Stone Mountain: A Monumental Dilemma.” Southern Poverty Law Center, 10 Feb. 2018, www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2018/stone-mountain-monumental-dilemma?gclid=Cj0KCQjw5PGFBhC2ARIsAIFIMNdgul6IefEUt4YRDCiE1FtRt6-8GMwAj-qgHEpVewir0isDqbBkKIEaAo40EALw_wcB
Moffatt, Emil. “Confederate Imagery on Stone Mountain Is Changing, but Not Fast Enough for Some.” NPR, 21 June 2021, www.npr.org/2021/06/21/1007924006/confederate-imagery-on-stone-mountain-is-changing-but-not-fast-enough-for-some
Poe, Ryan. “Memphis Haunted by Long, Conflicting History with Confederate Monuments.” The Commercial Appeal, Memphis Commercial Appeal, 15 Aug. 2017, www.commercialappeal.com/story/news/government/city/2017/08/15/memphis-confederate-monuments-through-years/568801001/
Poe, Ryan. “Memphis Removes Confederate Statues from Downtown Parks.” The Commercial Appeal, Memphis Commercial Appeal, 25 Dec. 2017, www.commercialappeal.com/story/news/government/city/2017/12/20/memphis-council-votes-immediately-remove-confederate-statues/960707001/