Who Controls Confederate Monuments?

It is a messier than usual time to be an American. Since the horrific killing of George Floyd, there has been a wave of Confederate monument removals across the country. As protesters and counter-protesters clash in the streets, it raises the question: whose decision should it be to remove these monuments?

While many advocates for Confederate monuments may say that “they are a part of history that we can’t erase” and that “they represent Southern pride, not racism,” that is simply untrue. Narratives like this tie into the “lost cause myth,” an idea created by prominent Confederates after the Civil War and continually used by historians such as President Woodrow Wilson to justify the massive scale of death, destruction, and human misery caused by the war (which the South started). Monuments do not seek to teach history, they seek to commemorate and often glorify an individual or event. History is taught with museums, schools, and reenactments, not bronze statues of slave owners with a plaque describing what a great Southern gentleman they were. If you’re still not convinced, I encourage you to stop reading this and look up the definition of monument right now — I will wait.

So that brings us to the topic at hand; who actually has the right to take one of these monuments down? The answer appears to be surprisingly simple: the communities they are in should. In my research, it seemed as though the vast majority of cases involved the community coming together to take down a monument that was deemed offensive by the community. A great example of this is when a group in Memphis, Tennessee called “Take em Down 901” decided to push for the removal of a statue of Confederate general and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Nathan Bedford Forrest. In 2017, they did successfully lobby the city to take down the statue with one very big obstacle: in Tennessee it is illegal to remove any monuments from government property. This is not a unique phenomenon either; seven states have laws prohibiting the removal of monuments without state government permission. But the mayor of Memphis, Jim Strickland, found a loophole in this rule. He sold the park the statue was located in to a non-profit and had them subsequently remove it. At last, on the night of December 20, 2017, the statue came down.

Of course this decision did not come without consequence, with the Republican-dominated state government of Tennessee itself cutting money from Memphis’ budget for the Bicentennial celebration. It is completely absurd that the state government can have so much control over what communities do with their monuments. If the monument is harming the community and the community wants to remove it, they should be able to! Now there are certain issues with this system, such as a minority Black community wanting to remove a racist monument in a majority white area. This is where the states should step in. In situations like this, we need legislation on a state level that gives Black people a prominent voice in any debate concerning Confederate monuments, making sure that the whole community’s perspectives are heard by all.

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