Earlier this month, Charlottesville, Virginia, was in the national spotlight as hundreds of white nationalists and neo-Nazis marched on the University of Virginia campus, carrying burning torches and chanting vitriolic rallying cries such as "Jews will not replace us."
The next day, the "Unite the Right" group rallied around a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in nearby Emancipation Park, in opposition of plans for the statue's removal. The group was met by counterprotesters, violence erupted, and Virginia's governor declared a state of emergency.
In light of these recent events, cities across the country are grappling with what to do with controversial monuments in their midst.
Experts from the University of Arizona's history department — Susan Crane, Katie Hemphill and Tyina Steptoe — will contextualize these discussions as part of a panel on Wednesday evening. In advance of that session, which is free and open to the public, Crane, an associate professor of history, and Hemphill, an assistant professor of history, responded to questions about the social and political power of monuments throughout history.
Q: What role do monuments play in society?
Susan Crane: Monuments are externalized memories, which is why memorials and monuments are often spoken of interchangeably. When a group or society feels strongly about honoring someone or some event, they may want to create a place dedicated to celebrating that person or that history. In the late 19th century, Germans erected dozens of monuments to Bismarck in honor of his role in unifying the nation, and they were, literally, huge in scale. Other huge monuments were created to honor the nation as an ideal. The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is organized on the same principles: big monuments, big open spaces, plenty of room for Fourth of July celebrations.
Katie Hemphill: Monuments are one means by which people draw meaning from the past and dictate what parts are worth remembering and commemorating. Monuments attempt to cement and create consensus around historical meaning — that is, they try to convey to us how we should interpret and remember the significance of an individual or historical event.
Q: Many statues that celebrate the Confederacy were erected during the Jim Crow era, with the intent of intimidating black people. How should we weigh intent and beliefs behind a statue, and does the passage of time change those evaluations?
Crane: The funny thing about monuments is that since they're "written in stone" we tend to think of them as not only immobile but static, unchangeable and permanent. But in practice, a monument is put in place by people who care a lot about the memories it represents. A generation or two or 12 later may not care anymore. Across millennia of human societies, you see that when regimes change, monuments get destroyed, defaced, repurposed and then new ones get built. It's an almost endless cycle, across civilizations.
Hemphill: I think any conversation about Confederate monuments needs to weigh the intentions of their creators heavily, particularly because the statues themselves convey those intentions with their designs and inscriptions. To provide one example: Many Confederate monuments include statements about the Civil War and its causes that the majority of historians would characterize as distortions or outright falsehoods. Slavery, which nearly all American historians agree was the primary cause of secession and the war, is very seldom acknowledged as having anything to do with the Confederacy or its war effort. That omission was intentional, and it reflected the "Lost Cause" ideology that predominated in the postwar South. This reconciliationist narrative, which held that men on both sides of the war were equally correct and justified in their cause, paved the way for white Southerners to retake control of state governments and regain power in national politics. It wrote black people out of the story of the war and justified their disenfranchisement and political and social subjugation. That Lost Cause ideology is imbedded in the bronze and stone of these statues.
Q: What drives the fear of being "replaced," and how do monuments allow people to feel validated and empowered?
Crane: First of all, saying "the Jews will not replace us" is racist paranoia and has no substance in reality. But the fear that the privileges that go along with being white in America today will be lost if they have to be "shared" with non-white Americans, is a fear of losing whatever little power some whites might feel they have in a society or economy that's no longer supporting them in the manner to which they have become accustomed. That being said, monuments can play a role in recalling or embodying memories of a time when that white privilege and power seemed secure.
Hemphill: I think the changing demographics of the country and economic shifts that have destabilized the middle class have a lot to do with why we're witnessing a resurgence of explicit and reactionary white supremacy. As to how monuments play into it, I think there are many white supremacists who understand correctly that Confederate monuments are symbols of white people's longstanding power to control historical narratives and public space. Because they want to preserve that power, they rally around statues of Confederate soldiers and commanders. Keeping the statues in place becomes a kind of symbolic bulwark against threats to white political power and against "political correctness."
Q: If Confederate monuments were all removed, would that address inequity?
Crane: No. If you take down Confederate monuments, you have to consider what the people who cared about those memories will do now. I don't think they'll all just say, "OK, now I think differently about the Civil War and the history of American slavery." Relocating the monuments, say, to a memorial-historical park (like the one in Budapest, the Memento Park, which holds gigantic, Cold War-era sculptures that were knocked down after 1989) or to a museum might better encourage dialogue about the memory of history. Taking public statues down without destroying them leaves open the option of retaining them as historical objects — they can go into archives, museum collections — and as such they can be preserved and studied. What changes when you take them from public space to storage is that you remove them from veneration.
Hemphill: As a fellow historian and brilliant scholar N.D.B. Connolly recently noted in an interview, one of the great accomplishments of the civil rights movement was making it socially unacceptable for white people to use words they had for many years employed to refer to black people, including the N-word. Did that linguistic change bring about an end to unequal access to housing and education, employment discrimination and other problems that faced — and continue to face — black Americans? No. At the same time, I think most of us would agree that our society is better for it. Conversations about white supremacy cannot be allowed to end with monuments, but monuments can be a steppingstone into a broader and much-needed dialogue about the persistence of inequality and the meaning of our shared past.