‘Our society is evolving’: What historians and activists are saying about the movement to remove statues

  • Statues of Confederate leaders and other controversial figures, like slaveholders and colonists, have become a focal point for protesters around the country.
  • Critics of Confederate statues say they celebrate racism and perpetuate a false narrative of the Civil War.
  • But many of those who want the statues to remain say they celebrate Southern heritage or simply commemorate those who died during the war.
  • The conversation has expanded to include statues of other historical figures that critics say whitewash slavery, racism, and the genocide of Indigenous people.
  • View more episodes of Business Insider Today on Facebook.

As anti-racism protests continue into their sixth week across the country, statues of Confederate leaders and other controversial figures have become a focal point for critics.

Almost every day, another statue falls, whether by city mandate or protesters taking matters into their own hands.

A statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis was torn down by protesters in Richmond, Virginia, on June 11, while another another one of general Robert E. Lee is set for removal by the city. Protesters in New Orleans tore down a bust of slaveholder John McDonogh and pushed it into the Mississippi River. People took down one of Thomas Jefferson in Portland, Oregon, and one of Christopher Columbus in Minneapolis.

Critics of the statues have said they celebrate racism and tell a false narrative of the Civil War, and in the case of Columbus and other colonial figures, genocide against Indigenous populations.

The tearing down of statues means different things to historians, activists, and civil rights advocates.

Historian Julian Hayter said the tearing down of statues is a way of correctly rewriting American history.

GettyImages 1221141536
People gather around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia on June 20, 2020. Ryan M. Kelly/AFP via Getty Images

Many of the Confederate memorials in the spotlight today were built long after the Civil War had ended in 1865. In fact, many were built between the 1890s and 1950s, during the era of Jim Crow laws that mandated segregation and repressed Black Americans.

Critics say the statues perpetuate the “Lost Cause” mythology that romanticizes slavery and promotes the honour of the Confederate cause. Taking down those memorials is seen as one way of correcting the historical record.

“They’re not really waging war on statues. They’re waging war on stories,” historian Julian Hayter of the University of Richmond told Business Insider Today. “Those statutes may stand without context, but they were designed to tell a story. They were designed to rewrite history, to essentially justify the rise of racial apartheid and segregation, and the racial apartheid and segregation of the 20th century has cast a very long shadow over America in the 21st century.”

He continued: “What people are in effect doing is recognising that before we start to talk about instituting institutional reforms that might actually do something meaningful for this country to move beyond its tortured racial history, we have to deal with the symbols of oppression. We have to deal with the symbols of white supremacy.”

“And the symbols of white supremacy, and the symbols of oppression, are inextricably linked for many people to institutionalized bigotry in the 21st century.”

For history professor Karen Cox, it’s a sign that “our society is evolving.”

Andrew jackson statue protest
Protesters try to pull down a statue of President Andrew Jackson during a racial inequality protest in Washington, D.C., on June 22, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Another historian, Karen Cox of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, compared Confederate monuments to other physical legacies of the Jim Crow era, such as “Coloreds only” signs for drinking fountains or bathrooms.

Although those signs have long been removed, their legacy has not been forgotten, she said.

“I mean, there are hundreds, hundreds of books on the Civil War out there, you know, numerous documentaries that explain the Civil War,” she said. “People are not going to forget who Robert E. Lee was because they remove a Lee monument, right? So the history isn’t going anywhere. The history is always going to be there.

“Taking down the statues means that first of all, our society is evolving.”

She continued: “It’s trying to bring, I think, a more honest evaluation of what these monuments mean and their place on the landscape and the role that they have played throughout history. And that we are finally hearing a different point of view. Obviously, monuments that sit on the landscape offer only one point of view, and it’s not necessarily an historical point of view.”

Although the list of targets has expanded to other historical figures, Confederate statues have been the focus of conversation in the US.

Jefferson davis statue confederate richmond

While the list of targets has expanded to colonial figures, including those who held slaves or were involved in the slave trade, the conversation in the US has largely been around Confederate statues on public land.

“I’m an African American woman. Why do I have to pass a monument of Robert E. Lee, a person that fought to enslave, or to continue to enslave me and people that were like me?” Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Centre, said. “It’s disrespectful at best. I’m a citizen of this country. I should not be exposed to that.”

“If these kinds of monuments to people who fought to enslave me are allowed to stand in public space, what does that say? That society cares about me and and my history? It also, we believe, tells a false history, and forwards and advances a false narrative that these people should be honoured or venerated in any way. Monuments or statues are typically erected to honour some person who did something honorable. And so to continue to kind of shift or offer a revisionist look at the Civil War is wrong. It’s just blatantly wrong.”

More than half of Americans support removal of Confederate statues, but 44% still think they should remain. Many in that group argue the monuments represent Southern heritage.

Statue washington emancipation memorial
Protesters for and against the removal of the Emancipation Memorial debate in Lincoln Park on June 25, 2020 in Washington, DC. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Today, over half the country supports removing Confederate statues, a huge jump from just a few years ago. More than 100 Confederate statues have come down over the past five years.

Still, 44% of people think they should remain, according to a Quinnipiac University poll in June.

For one opponent, James Ronald Kennedy of the group Sons of Confederate Veterans, statues and monuments to the Confederacy represent what he describes as Southern culture and values. Kennedy disagrees with historians’ widely held conclusion that slavery was the principal cause of the Civil War.

“Confederate monuments are important to Southerners, and that’s because … from my Southern point of view, the history that has been taught in our schools is history from the victors’ point of view,” James Ronald Kennedy of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said. “Those monuments were to honour the memory of men who fought for their principles – for the principles of constitutional liberty, the principles of which this country was founded. Just because they didn’t win, that doesn’t mean they weren’t right.”

“When slanderous accusations are made against the South, they’re made against us personally, it’s personal.”

Amanda Chase, a Republican state senator from Virginia, also views the removal as a threat to her culture: “It’s all about shoving this down people’s throats and erasing the history of the white people,” she said in a Facebook video.

Historians emphasise when Civil War monuments were actually built, and what their purpose was.

Albert pike statue fire

Many historians focus on the fact that many Civil War monuments in the US were built a generation after the war had ended, in the early 1900s, as Jim Crow segregation began to take hold in the South. Their construction continued through the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“When people refer to these monuments as Civil War monuments, I think we need to be very clear about when these monuments were erected. They were erected a generation later when many of the civil rights laws and civil rights progress that was made in the post-Civil War era was beginning to be reversed,” Judith Giesberg, a history professor at Villanova University, said.

“It parallels also the movement to legally disenfranchise black men, turn back the clock on the 15th Amendment, an increase in racial violence, the rise of Jim Crow and legal segregation,” Karen Cox said. “It’s also a celebration of the return of white control and white supremacy.”