The Dallas City Council voted recently to sell the city’s statue of General Robert E. Lee. While there are debates about what we should do with Confederate monuments, it is important to remember why many want to tear them down — because they represent racism and were used historically to intimidate black people.
In 1915, when the largest and most famous Confederate memorial was commissioned to be carved into the granite rock at Stone Mountain, Georgia, the second rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan occurred in the same year on the same mountain.
Tools of terror, racism
The connection between the KKK and Confederate monuments isn’t a coincidence. Throughout the South, the rise of these monuments in the post-Reconstruction area corresponds with the rebirth of the KKK. The two histories cannot be separated.
The racism surrounding the construction of Confederate statues even goes deeper. Historians note that these statues weren’t solely constructed to celebrate the Confederacy. Many of them were built as forms of harassment and terror, as reminders of what might happen to black people if they fought for civil rights or if they went against white order in the Jim Crow South. There were built to induce fear.
Yet, recently, former Arlington Mayor Richard Greene argued that we should consider these sites with nuance, to discuss the various motivations and conflicts that might have plagued Confederate generals like Lee — who he described as “ambivalent” — without realizing the history of why most of these statues were erected in the first place. He referred to the call to tear down these statues as “nonsensical.”
In a perfect public sphere — where we analyze everything with complexity and don’t take anything for granted — the statues might be able to stay. We might be able to look at them and feel the shame of our past and focus on betterment.
But that’s not how people use these memorials. Most who pass by Lee’s statue don’t take the time to consider the various complexities of the man’s life, and the statue itself isn’t built to embody these nuances. It is built to romanticize Lee and his racist rebellion.
Complexity gets lost
No memorial ever created to honor an individual illustrates complexity. That goes against the very fabric of why we create memorials in the first place. Statues take into account only what we want to remember, not the characteristics that actually humanize those etched into stone.
This is why people want to tear down Confederate statues or move them to museums where they can be properly contextualized — because their public nature asks people to empathize with them and thus identify with the pro-slavery cause chiseled into their memory.
Confederate statues such as those of Lee symbolize racism, and their prevalence in the post-Reconstruction era often stems from racist intents.
The only thing “nonsensical” about Confederate statues is that it has taken us a century to finally realize how detrimental they are to our society.