The Debate of Confederate Statues In Public Spaces

By Yeon Woo Lee (‘21)

After the killings of George Floyd and Breona Taylor, the debate of systematic racism has spread across the nation. The Black Lives Matter has grown tremendously and the topic of racism today has finally hit all corners of the country. One of the debates that has arisen is the common use of Confederate symbols, especially in the South.

I had grown up in Montgomery, Alabama, the location of the first capital of the Confederacy. Often, my class was taken on field trips to the home that Jefferson Davis had lived in during his presidency. It was also common to see Confederate flags hanging outside of some homes and Confederate statues in public places. My family often visited Stone Mountain in Georgia, where President Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are carved. At the time, my family did not know the historical implications of the carving and even enjoyed the light shows that they had there. At the time, my elementary school self did not think too much of it. But after moving to Michigan, I had learned a slightly different viewpoint of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights Movement. I did not realize how much offense was taken with reminders of the evil committed against African-Americans in our history, which has led me to think about the purpose and place for Confederate statues.

One point that people who oppose the tearing down of Confederate statues always make is that it is a part of Southern heritage and culture that they do not wish to disregard or forget. They also make the case that the Confederacy was not created on the basis of slavery but the divide between Northern and Southern states in many different policies. Some even say that it is a reminder of what happened in history and tearing it down would be the mistake of not learning from history. 

However, the purpose of learning history is to learn from past mistakes and not repeat them. Some pro-confederacy groups reject all criticisms of the fallen soldiers as the beliefs in the 19th century are drastically different from today. While racism was accepted in the US then, it is important that we do not place all historical figures on a pedestal as if they were perfect beings. It is possible to remember them as ancestors, but keep in mind that they were on the wrong side of history. In Germany, the only physical memory of the Nazi Party are the concentrations camps. While many Germans have family that had been associated with the Nazi Party or had followed the ideologies in the past, people do not praise them for that aspect, which is why they decided to get rid of all symbols of the party. It is possible that people who have connections to the Confederacy remember their family as an individual person rather than the Confederacy as a whole. As Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans said in his speech of the removal of such statues, “These statues are not just stone and metal. They’re not just innocent remembrances of benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanctified Confederacy: ignoring death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.”

Also, slavery was a debate over who deserved the basic human rights according to the US Constitution. It caused economic concern as the South had grown rich from the exploitation of free labor and was a struggle for power in the lawmaking bodies as the North and South feared for the loss of power in all three branches of government. Essentially, the issue of slavery divided the nation into the Union and Confederacy.

It is also important to know when the statues were put up. The South had started to create memorials for fallen soldiers right after the Civil War had ended. But statues of Confederate lawmakers and generals were mostly put in place around after reconstruction and well into the 20th century by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy. There are many ways that the United States can preserve the dark time in our history without having to leave the Confederate statues in public places. In other nations around the world, people who have committed wrongdoings are not proudly placed in public spaces as a reminder for what has happened. In South Korea, instead placing statues of Japanese soldiers that kidnapped women to use them as comfort women, they have placed many statues of the women themselves. As mentioned earlier, Germany has only left the concentration camps as a public memory of the Nazi Party. And the citizens in the two countries are very educated on these topics. It is possible to remember that the Confederacy and slavery by placing statues of the slaves that had helped with the economic development of the country rather than with the people that had tried to keep African-Americans in bondage. This can also help people understand that there is more to the founding of the United States than just the work of the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary War.

The proper place to hold Confederate statues and flags are museums as its purpose is to hold different artifacts of history, science, art, etc.. Even with the lack of Confederate statues in public places, history lessons will not end. Schools across the United States continue to teach students about slavery and the Confederacy. In recent years, the New York Times has also released the 1619 Project that shines a light on the darker side of our nation’s founding and its impacts on people today. Leaving the statues would be a big mistake as it can cause people to not understand how slavery and racism has tormented African-Americans in the country in the past and its impacts today.

The proper place to hold Confederate statues and flags are museums as its purpose is to hold different artifacts of history, science, art, etc.. Even with the lack of Confederate statues in public places, history lessons will not end. Schools across the United States continue to teach students about slavery and the Confederacy. In recent years, the New York Times has also released the 1619 Project that shines a light on the darker side of our nation’s founding and its impacts on people today. Leaving the statues would be a big mistake as it can cause people to not understand how slavery and racism has tormented African-Americans in the country in the past and its impacts today.

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