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What kind of history do Confederate statues tell?

Medical, dental, and nursing students who attend the University of Tennessee's Health Sciences school rallied for the removal of a statue of Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from a city park, on Aug. 18, in Memphis.Adrian Sainz/Associated Press Photo

It’s been infuriating to watch Donald Trump change the subject from his odious equivocating about “very fine people” in the Charlottesville white-power march to a lament about the removal of Confederate monuments. His dark political instincts tell him that most Americans want to keep the historic statues in place — certainly more than support white supremacists or neo-Nazis. Trump’s erstwhile chief of staff, Steve Bannon, fairly salivated at the prospect, days before he left the White House, last week: “Just give me more,” he told The New York Times. “Tear down more statues. I can’t get enough of it.”

Justifiably or not, many Americans equate the dismantling of Confederate statues with effacing the national memory. Changing that is going to take a deliberate and thoughtful conversation about the real meaning of our historic symbols. The statues that are signifiers of racial subjugation need to be removed — but it won’t help to do it through vandalism, as at Duke University, or skulkingly under cover of night, as in Baltimore.


History is rife with examples of monuments being defaced or destroyed by mobs, invading armies, religious zealots, or opposition rulers, from statues of the Pharaohs to the Buddhas of Bamiyam — razed by the Taliban in 2001. During the Bosnian War, the 16th-century Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka was literally crushed into rubble and carted off as landfill as part of a Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing. Trump exploits these uneasy memories when he cossets his white nationalist base with a veneer of respect for American history.

We could all use a refresher course, anyway. Historian James Loewen, in his 2000 book “Lies Across America,” documents scores of errors and outright falsehoods inscribed on our nation’s monuments, especially those erected by “Southern heritage” groups intent on getting their version of events carved into stone. He notes that Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest is on at least 32 historical markers in Tennessee — more than any other figure in the state — most of them erected well after the Civil War. Is he revered for his command of the cavalry or because he was one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan?


We could also adjust the record by adding interpretive panels to existing memorials — or creating new ones that vividly tell the other side. I doubt this is what Vice President Pence had in mind when he said ungrammatically this week, “I’m someone who believes in more monuments, not less monuments.” But why not take him at his word and erect a statue to Newton Knight and his courageous band of Civil War resisters in Mississippi, who raised a Union flag over a Jones County courthouse in 1864 and declared it a free state? Why not invite Pence to the Peace and Justice Memorial, scheduled to open in 2018, in Montgomery, Ala., dedicated to the 4,000-plus victims of racial lynchings in the American South (and designed by the Boston-based MASS Design Group)?

Of course, Trump — perhaps the most ahistoric president we have ever had — is busy trying to sanitize the record himself. At his rally in Phoenix this week, he dishonestly elided his most damning words, about the violence “on many sides,” from his initial statements after Charlottesville. Then he neatly pivoted again to the statues. “They’re trying to take away our culture,” he moaned. “They’re trying to take away our history.” And you know who “they” are!


So let’s stop selecting facts about our history. Let’s get to know the difference between remembering the past and revering it. Not, as Pence dismissively put it, “just in the name of some contemporary political cause,” but in the name of the enduring human values of decency and fairness. That’s not rewriting history, it’s righting it.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.