When St. Louis’ new mayor, Lyda Krewson, indicated that she will fulfill former Mayor Slay’s promise to remove the statue honoring Confederate soldiers that stands in Forest Park, opposition quickly materialized. Why? According to letters published in the local papers and radio discussions, there are numerous reasons:
Lots of folks think that if Confederate monuments are removed, history will somehow, magically, be erased. Forget about history books, libraries, museums and the thriving scholarly discipline, there are people who think that we only learn history from statues.
But the presence or absence of monuments doesn’t really affect history. After the fall of Baghdad, Iraqis pulled down Saddam Hussein’s statue, but the world still knows all about who he was and what he did. Iraqis weren’t attempting to erase their history, they were making a statement about their values. Removing the Confederate monument in Forest Park constitutes a similar statement that we value respect for others, inclusivity and honesty.
Honesty because most monuments dedicated to Confederate soldiers and luminaries represent a rather special type of history, what we euphemistically call revisionist history. It seeks to paint dark actions in rosy colors. People talk about fake news a lot nowadays, but we’ve been putting fake history in our public places for at least a hundred years.
The inescapable fact is that, no matter how would-be apologists want to slice it, the civil war was fought to preserve the right of light-skinned Europeans to own the bodies and the labor of dark-skinned Africans, who, as a group, were forcibly brought to this country for that purpose. A National Park Service brochure puts it succinctly when it declares that all the other reasons that folks like to trot out – states rights, economic interests, southern “traditions” – were “inextricably bound to the institution of slavery.” Confederate leaders were absolutely clear that they were seceding in order to preserve the right to own African slaves.
In the light of the Confederacy’s ugly goal, consider the plaque affixed to the statue in Forest Park:
To the Memory of the Soldiers and Sailors of the Southern Confederacy.
Who fought to uphold the right declared by the pen of Jefferson and achieved by the sword of Washington. With sublime self sacrifice they battled to preserve the independence of the states which was won from Great Britain, and to perpetuate the constitutional government which was established by the fathers.
Actuated by the purest patriotism they performed deeds of prowess such as thrilled the heart of mankind with admiration. Full in the front of war they stood and displayed a courage so superb that they gave a new and brighter luster to the annals of valor. History contains no chronicle more illustrious than the story of their achievements; and although, worn out by ceaseless conflict and overwhelmed by numbers, they were finally forced to yield, their glory, on brightest pages penned by poets and by sages shall go sounding down the ages.
Makes you want to puke, doesn’t it? Why would anyone want to perpetuate such a metaphorical slap in the face of the African-American citizens who make up the majority of the people living in St. Louis?
The monuments honor the valiant soldiers, not their cause.
The Southern cause was evil. But that’s not the whole story; those who espoused secession were guilty of treason against the United States of America. That they weren’t tried and imprisoned at the end of the war was due to the mercy of the victors. Only very disturbed societies would erect statues to honor the “sublime self sacrifice” of their own traitors.
A variant of the argument states that many Confederate soldiers didn’t own slaves, but fought strictly out of regional or tribal loyalty. Conservatives are fond of telling us that people need to take responsibility for their choices, so why not apply that logic to Confederate soldiers who made the bad choice to take up arms against their country in a war to defend slavery? There may have been stormtroopers in the Nazi army who held no animus against Jews and Gypsies and who fought valiantly, but few Germans would want -or dare – to put up statues to honor them. What Nazi Germany stood for was just too shameful.
Down the slippery path
Many apologists for the Confederate monuments want to present their removal as the first step that will lead us down a slippery path. If we remove Confederate monuments, they wail, will we have to take down monuments to men like Washington and Jefferson or change the names of streets, buildings and cities named to honor them because they too owned slaves?
This argument is absurd. We don’t honor Washington and Jefferson because they stood up for slavery. They were fallible human beings who may have participated in some or even many of the evils of their times, but they also transcended their times in other ways that we consider important to recognize. The only reason, though, that there is a statue to Confederate soldiers in Forest Park is that the men it honors stood against their country to defend human bondage.
Removing Confederate monuments violates Free Speech protections
A group of New Orleans citizens filed suit to stop the removal of four of their Confederate monuments, and among other claims, initially tried to assert that “removal of the monuments violates the plaintiffs’ First Amendment right to free expression, ‘which they exercise by maintaining and preserving the historic character and nature of the city of New Orleans, including their monuments’.” The group ultimately decided not to tie their request for an injunction to free speech issues, which the judge, who ultimately ruled against them, declared to be a wise decision since ” “the removal of monuments is a form of government speech and is exempt from First Amendment scrutiny.”
Why would government speech be exempt from such scrutiny? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the government serves as a speech proxy for all its citizens? Would a good government privilege dishonest and offensive speech by enshrining it permanently in a public venue? Doesn’t good government correct errors in past, public speech acts – in this case by removing the intrinsically offensive statue in Forest Park.
Taking down Confederate monuments reflects a double standard
Some local apologists for the Forest Park monument point to Congressman Lacy Clay’s decision to display in a congressional hallway a student artwork that some found offensive because it portrayed policemen as pigs. If Confederate monuments offend African-Americans, they argue, portrayals of bestial police are just as offensive to police officers, their families and supporters. Why privilege one group over the other? Isn’t that censorship at the very least, and a violation of equal protection rights at worst? The claim to equal protection rights, by the way, was also made by the groups that brought suit in New Orleans and it’s worth noting that the judge didn’t agree that those rights had been violated.
In the case of Rep. Clay’s painting, the analogy is false because the two cases are not parallel. The Confederate monuments are, by the nature of their placement, meant to be public art. Even though it was temporarily displayed in a public place, the painting that Rep. Clay chose to display belongs to the private art sphere. It was not purchased by or donated to the government permanently, and was part of a group display reflecting diverse content. It did not make a public, but rather a private statement on the part of the artist alone, a statement that may or may not be offensive but is in no way, unlike the statue in Forest Park, intrinsically official public speech. The level of offense we can tolerate in private artistic expression is an entirely other conversation.
So what’s really going on?
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have cared if the probably long-dead United Daughters of the Confederacy of Saint Louis, the ladies who donated the statue, had installed it in a private space. Nor do I have a problem if it is moved to another type of venue. However, I don’t want those ladies speaking from their graves, through my government, which is to say, in my name, when it comes to whom I honor in public spaces that belong to me as well as to them. Particularly when, as Emory historian, Carol Adams, has observed:
… the various reasons given for defending Confederate monuments and symbols share a common underlying expectation — that even in an increasingly diverse democracy, power and influence should remain unchanged.
“Beneath all of the talk is a longing for an America that is not only predominantly white but where the resources of a very, very rich nation are funneled almost exclusively toward whites,” said Anderson, author of the 2016 book “White Rage.” “These are who people believe [sic] that they are actually oppressed and disadvantaged whenever anyone else’s voice is heard, their needs addressed and their political will prevails.”
Not every whiner is up in arms to defend white privilege; some are just intellectually lazy, or reluctant to see the world they have learned to rely on change in even minor ways – perhaps, especially in minor ways. Hell, maybe some people just like the way the statue looks. Nevertheless, when a small readjustment of a public space generates this much noise, there’s almost always something larger and psychologically significant lurking somewhere in the background.