From a Robert E. Lee statue at the University of Texas at Austin, to a Jefferson Davis plaque in San Diego, Confederate monuments nationwide are coming down.
Of course, this is long overdue, and never should have been necessary in the first place, since men who championed slavery and sedition were never worthy of recognition. Some memorials weren’t even hidden behind the false cover of honoring the Confederate dead. In April, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who gave an impassioned speech about the need to eliminate Confederate statues, ordered the removal of four monuments in his city. One was an obelisk erected in 1891 that commemorated a white racist mob’s deadly battle against an integrated police force and state militia in 1874. History is supposed to belong to the victors, but for more than a century the descendants of the defeated have choked public spaces with markers of white supremacy.
Piece by piece, that is being remedied. Yet once the monuments come down, then what? While doing so is symbolically important, it doesn’t begin to address the deeper issues of systemic discrimination that undermine many African-Americans.
This recent spate of statue removals was sparked by the murder of Heather Heyer, who died when a car plowed into counterprotesters at a racist rally in Charlottesville this month. In a statement about removal of four campus Confederate statues, University of Texas at Austin president Greg Fenves said that Virginia tragedy convinced him “now more than ever, that Confederate monuments have become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism.”
Did Fenves and other officials not recognize that such statues, many erected during the Jim Crow era and the 1960s civil rights movement to intimidate black people, were always symbols of white supremacy? Why wasn’t there a similar epiphany when convicted murderer Dylann Roof, trying to start a race war, killed nine African-Americans in their Charleston, S.C., church, in 2015? Only after activist Bree Newsome’s bold action in scaling a pole to remove a Confederate flag on the grounds of South Carolina’s State House did officials finally retire the war banner.
Taking down such flags and monuments is the least this country can do — and some states don’t even want to do that. In May, Alabama passed its Memorial Preservation Act, prohibiting the “relocation, removal, alteration, renaming, or other disturbance of any architecturally significant building, memorial building, memorial street, or monument located on public property” that’s more than 40 years old. Defending the law, Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, said, “When negative aspects of history are repeated, it is often done because we have scrubbed the effects of the past from our memories.”
That history argument is as phony as a Confederate dollar. Even if every statue, plaque, and monument is removed, it can’t erase all the remnants of what Ivey called “our darkest hours” — voter suppression, mass incarceration, racial profiling, and assaults on affirmative action. African-Americans live everyday with “the negative effects” of the same history many fight to preserve.
When President Trump asked “Where does it stop?” in regard to removing Confederate statues, he might as well have been referring to African-American agitation to ensure themselves the same rights and opportunities afforded white Americans. No one will be silenced or pacified because these statues are slowly disappearing. From its first breath when this nation was born, white supremacy has been nimble, always concocting new theories and laws to sustain racial subjugation. Dismantling Confederate imagery is one thing; dismantling the rooted systems of white supremacy they represent won’t end with the removal of its metal and marble monuments to racism and treason.