How to Get Rid of Confederate Monuments

Confederate monuments, street names, and other symbols have long been a focal point, but they may be escalating to ground zero after Charlottesville. Last night in Durham, North Carolina, a Confederate statue was torn down. It is tempting to say “good riddance” and to compare it to the destruction of dictators’ statues by a mass democratic movement. These statues were not created merely as historical lessons or to celebrate culture and “heritage,” but to make a political point. In fact, many were erected half a century or more after the Civil War. Many were built during the KKK’s ascendency, and some even during the civil rights era as a defiant stand against integration and equality. They should have been removed long ago.

However, I’m concerned for two reasons:

(1) It would be a FAR better public message if local governments all over the South did this themselves. That process has already started, and while it is sloppy and time-consuming (representative government always is), their votes on the record send a powerful message. When it is done by a mob, it looks more like the sentiment of a destructive (and criminal) minority of the people, rather than the consensus of the majority and their elected representatives. Individuals should not be able to create public policy. Local governments will now have to prosecute those who do it, essentially defending the monument. If they don’t, they will not be able to successfully prosecute white nationalists when they attack monuments in retaliation.

(2) What’s the definition of a reactionary public symbol that should be discarded? Would it be anyone who supported slavery, for example, including the Framers of the Constitution, half of whom owned slaves? There is already talk now about statues of all-men-are-created-equal Thomas Jefferson, who although he was conflicted — especially in his later years — was a slave-owner. What about those Founding Fathers who opposed slavery, but nevertheless agreed to the Constitution without prohibiting it? They are not without responsibility. [edit: the fact that Trump brought this subject up after I wrote this does not mean it’s not a real issue that is being debated already in some localities]

Statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis being removed in New Orleans

For that matter, what about Lincoln, who is commonly viewed as the Great Emancipator, but who believed in racial superiority and thought Africans could never be integrated into American society? In fact, the majority of American presidents shared such views until the modern civil rights movement.

The fact that these are tough questions means that they should be decided by representative government, rather than a crowd of protesters. The tide of public opinion is turning against these statues. State and local governments must get out front and become much more aggressive about removing them.