Should They Stay or Go?
Ed, Nathan and Brian talk about what to do with Confederate statues, and how we should think about them.
Nathan Connolly: Yeah, sure.
Brian Balogh: You bet.
Ed Ayers: Okay. Now, this topic is pretty close to things that I have to talk about a lot, so let me ask you this: What are your thoughts about what we might best do with the Confederate monuments that are all around the country?
Nathan Connolly: Well, I think right off the top, obviously these monuments continue to be rightfully so, kind of lightening rods for contemporary debates. And for my money, I feel it’s really important to be able to have an honest conversation about when these statues were build, what they represented at the time they were built, and what exactly people are hanging onto when they’re hanging onto a statue of Robert E. Lee or a Stonewall Jackson, right?
I mean, I also study this period because it’s a period of White Supremacy, right? It’s the period of Jim Crow. And I think a lot of people presume that this is only a 19th Century problem and don’t acknowledge that it’s a 20th Century problem. But it’s-
Ed Ayers: Yeah, and with all those statues that were put up in the 20th Century, now that I think about it.
Nathan Connolly: No, but I actually do believe that it’s important to think about statues and what they represent and what would it mean to put up for instance, a monument to slavery, a monument to reconstruction, a monument to The Civil Rights Movement, at every site where there currently stands a monument to a Confederate General. And let’s see what that conversation then sparks, right?
Because I think part of what the problem is, is that there is a singularity to a monument or a statue. When in fact, those statues are sites of conflict and contestation. So, let the monuments reflect that debate.
Brian Balogh: I would give similar advice in even simpler terms. My view of history is that is additive. It’s about adding not subtracting. And so, because Monument Avenue has created its own history, in essence, a commemoration of White Supremacy, I think it’s really essential that we add back in those tens of thousands of voice that were muted at the very time that those statues were being celebrated and that the regime of Jim Crow was being created, at the expense of African Americans.
Ed Ayers: I wonder what you would say to people who celebrate the speech of Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, who gave this eloquent speech about why he had overseen the removal of the three statues there. To many people, that’s the new baseline. That’s what you’re supposed to do if you’re going to get right with this history. What would you say to them?
Brian Balogh: I understand that, Ed, and I understand that thinking, but I disagree with it, because if we remove the symbols of some of the greatest oppression in our history, it becomes very hard to explain why so much racism endures today.
Nathan Connolly: I thought a lot about this a couple years ago when I was asked the trustees at Princeton University to consider Woodrow Wilson, and whether or not to put forward another kind of monument to take Wilson’s name down. And I was of the mind then to think about erecting a monument to the US occupation of Haiti, which Wilson helped orchestrate.
Brian Balogh: Right.
Nathan Connolly: Or to reconstruction, which Wilson was clearly opposed to, as a way of kind of counterbalancing the weight of that one great man.
The thing about those kinds of even conversational approaches, and again, this is me feeling very ambivalent about it still, is that rarely does the secondary marker really compete at the scale of that first monolithic figure, right? So, it’s a struggle, honestly, for me to think through this. And I tend to wonder what would it look like to open up the commemorative space of the monument itself to public art projects? What would it take to possibly think about the fact that these monuments, as artifacts of Jim Crow, what would it mean to basically juxtapose Jim Crow iconography with some of that stuff, right?
Ed Ayers: Right.
Nathan Connolly: To literally put a Whites Only sign, or to mark them as being a feature of segregation. I mean, clearly, they are indeed products of a very specific moment, trying to settle very specific battles.
Ed Ayers: As it turns out, The Richmond Times Dispatch did a poll, non-scientific, asking people what they thought about what should be done with the statues and people could vote as many times as they wanted to, so it was not really a scientific sample. But 80-some thousand votes said that nothing should be done with them, 60-some thousand votes said they should be taken down, less than 1% said they needed to know more about the issue.
Nathan Connolly: Wow.
Ed Ayers: So, people seem to have really settled this issue in their own minds. But what’s not been settled is the legal, political, class, racial, geospatial context of which all of these things are going to be decided. So, people are gonna have to keep thinking about this issue whether they want to or not. And I think both of you just gave us new ways to think about them.
Nathan Connolly: It’s time to take a short break. When we get back, the many lives of The Confederate Battle Flag. But first, a word from today’s sponsor.