The Problem with Confederate Monuments in Public Spaces

A statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In a recent interview with Ezra Klein, Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Commission, stated, “What we do in the memorial spaces says a lot about who we are.” The ways that we shape and mythologize the past tells us what we think about the present and our current social milieu. Stevenson continued,

In this country, we don’t talk about slavery. We don’t talk about lynching. Worse, we’ve created the counternarrative that says we have nothing about which we should be ashamed. Our past is romantic and glorious. In my state of Alabama, Jefferson Davis’s birthday is a state holiday. Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday. We don’t even have Martin Luther King Day in Alabama. We have Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day.

What does it say that Alabama and Mississippi still celebrate “Confederate Memorial Day“? What does it say that two high schools, both named after “heroes” of the Confederacy, are “90-some percent African-American”? What does it say that the Confederate White House in Montgomery focuses on cotton production, not slavery? What does it say that the governor of Alabama signed the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act to bar “the removal, renaming, removal and alteration of monuments, memorial streets, memorial buildings and architecturally significant buildings located on public property for 40 or more years,” into law?1 What does it say that in Selma, where Martin Luther King Jr, John Lewis, and countless others marched for Civil Rights, there is a “monument” to Nathan Bedford Forrest? What does all of this say?

As I reflected on these developments, I thought about the experiences of my friend. In April, she encountered a white woman at a festival in Lafayette, LA, under the gaze of Confederate General Alfred Mouton. The woman spoke with reverence and pride upon seeing the monument. She saw the Old South in all its Gone With the Wind majesty while my friend saw the subjugation that she, her parents. and ancestors experienced at the hands of white supremacy. My friend’s interaction with the woman occurred while New Orleans was in the process of removing Confederate monuments from public spaces. These debates are continuing across the nation, even in my hometown of Shreveport, LA,  where disputes have been ongoing about the removal of the monument that stands outside of the Caddo Parish Courthouse.2

General Alfred Mouton statue (Photo: Claire Taylor/Daily Advertiser).

We’ve all heard the old adage, “History is written by the victors.” With the monuments, this is not the case. Local branches of the United Daughters of the Confederacy placed and maintained the sculptures in Lafayette, Shreveport, and New Orleans. Erected after Reconstruction and during Jim Crow, these monuments, under the pretense of reverence and remembrance, serve as reminders that the ever-watchful eye of those in power will do whatever it takes to maintain that power. What effect does the placement of these monuments in public spaces do to individuals who must pass them every day?

During his speech on May 19, New Orleans, mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke about a friend who asked him to think about an African American girl who must pass monuments that depict Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard every day. What would her parents say to her about the statues immortalizing these Confederate leaders? Landrieu continued by rhetorically asking, “Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?” This is the heart of this discussion. What message do these monuments send to that young girl and others? The “heroes” stand on pedestals and basically tell her, “You do not belong here. If you choose to stay, I have my eye on you.”

In his work, Louisiana author Ernest J. Gaines confronts this issue at multiple points. One such instance occurs in A Lesson before Dying (1993) as Grant Wiggins brings Miss Emma to the courthouse to see her godson Jefferson who is scheduled to be executed.3 Grant describes the building and the surrounding area as a space that requires protection from Black people.

The courthouse, like most of the public buildings in town, was made of red brick. Built around the turn of the century [1900], it looked like a small castle you might see in the countryside somewhere in Europe. The parking lot that surrounded the courthouse was covered with crushed seashells. A statue of a Confederate soldier stood to the right of the walk that led up to the courthouse door. Above the head of the statue, national, stated, and Confederate flags flew on long metal poles. The big clock tower struck two as I parked opposite the statue and the flags. It took Miss Emma a while to get out of the car, so by the time we came into he sheriff’s office, the clock on the wall there said five after two.

Before they even enter the courthouse, Grant and Miss Emma experience subjugation through the edifice, the statue, and the flags. The comparison of the courthouse to a “small castle” calls to mind a fortification that one must protect against invasion. Add to this the statue of the Confederate soldier who stands, as if on guard, and the militaristic nature of the flags, and Grant and Miss Emma receive a message that they are entering a building where they are not welcomed, even if the edifice houses the imprisoned Jefferson.

This is the same feeling that the African American girl Landrieu invoked would feel as she would walk by the statue of Robert E. Lee. This is the same feeling that Black students at schools named after Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis feel when they enter the halls. This is the same feeling that Kayla Warner, the president of the Black Student Union at Auburn University, felt as she walked through the president’s house at the University of Alabama. These are the feelings my friend felt as she encountered a white woman underneath the ever-present gaze of General Mouton. The interaction caused her to proclaim, “[T]his South has no real place for me, or my ancestors, or future descendants. And if it does, we should know that we will forever be inferior or unacknowledged.”

Some argue that the monuments represent history, and that is true. But, what this boils down to is, as Landrieu says, “a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.” The continued reluctance to see the men and ideas depicted in stone for what they embody brings to mind that many people revere the monuments, and in the process, revere what they stand for as well. We do not need to forget history. We do not need to forget that these monuments existed in the spaces where they stood. They tell a story of our past as a nation but they do not need to be in the spaces where they reside(d). These monuments convey messages of suppression, and while removing them will not remedy the ailments caused by our history, it is a step in the right direction.

  1.  A similar bill in Louisiana failed in the Senate. Louisiana leaves decisions about these monuments up to the local governments.
  2. See Myles Roberts’ piece on Heliopolis. The most recent hearing became rather contentious. You can read the advisory committee’s resolution about the monument at the Shreveport Times’ website.
  3.  Gaines writes about a fictitious town in Louisiana called Bayonne. It is based on New Roads, LA, in the area where he grew up, about halfway between Lafayette and New Orleans.
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Matthew Teutsch

Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest's run on Black Panther. Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.