I’ll be blunt. The statues of Confederate Generals and leaders belong in museums and not in public places on state or federal land. They don’t represent the United States; the represent the fact that many states chose to leave the country. Ignorance of this history and blatant discrimination are all that have kept them in their current place.
Let us first begin with the argument that this is about southern heritage and not slavery. Well, I would argue that you cannot separate the two. Antebellum society and economy was predicated on intergenerational chattel bondage of men, women, and children. This was true especially in the South, who relied mostly on agriculture for their economy. One can not credibly argue that somehow some semblance of Southern society has endured; that the antebellum south has an enduring legacy completely devoid of slavery.
In fact, this lack of historicity is to somehow claim that the abolition of slavery with the 13th Amendment solved slavery. It ignored another century of vile discrimination that required a social movement to begin to undo. (Though I will not mention the myriad ways in which conservatives are rolling back those achievements). Simply put: IF YOU WANT TO REMINISCE ABOUT THE ANTEBELLUM SOUTH YOU ARE REMINISCING ABOUT SLAVERY.
Critics will then turn to the canard that the North Made the war about slavery. The secessions were about States’ Rights. To argue this ignored the fact that the secession occurred when the Southern-based Democrats had lost their political power and a President that personally opposed Slavery was elected. The South didn’t wait for Lincoln to even become President constitutionally before leaving. So yes, the motive may have changed during the war in the North, but the South always saw the threat to slavery and that drove them to secede.
A brief aside: spare me the hero worship of Robert E. Lee. The man resigned his post in the U.S. army to fight against that very army and the his own country. Whatever his motive, he put his life on the line to defend the institution of slavery.
Now that we have grounded the historical basis for the causes of the Civil War, where did all these Confederate statues come from? Most originated, not during or immediately after the Civil War, but on a milestone anniversary, like the 50th anniversary. At this time in the U.S., the Klan was ascendant and Woodrow Wilson was showing Birth of a Nation, a film openly glorifying the Klan and White Supremacy. These statues became nostalgic reminders of the days in which white people had been supreme in the South, before such silly things and morals and constitutional amendments got in the way. They were symbols of what many wanted at the time; a white ethno-state. It wasn’t about heritage. It was about White Supremacy and racism.
So that brings us to today. What do we do? Some have suggested letting the statues stand, others, to put them in proper context. Others have torn them down and destroyed them. I find None of these answer satisfying. To leave them unchanged lifts up an era of slavery and nods to white supremacists and racist of complicit support. This support is enhanced by their very placement on public land. And as far as putting them in proper context, what context do we choose? The context of the Antebellum era and Civil War? Or the era in which they were erected, when the Klan was ascendant? Neither strikes me as a good idea, and to attempt both at each and every monument might be too great a burden to bear. Finally, destroying these statues serves to embitter certain people, but also removes the opportunity for learning. If we can only find a way to preserve the statues in such a way that we understand clearly the racism, bigotry and oppression they represent.
So why not put them in museums? Curators can give all the information necessary on the person or persons depicted and also the reasons for the erection and removal of the statue. Placing them in museums gives a full, rich and nuanced history; the treatment these monuments deserve. These statues tell a riveting story: a story of American struggling against itself against slavery, our continuing struggle against racism and their removal and placement in museums as we learned and became a more open and caring society. This most closely seems to bridge the divide between the groups. The statues get to stay, but they are off public land and placed in historical context.