Monuments or Memorials? It Makes a Difference.

May 17, 2017

 

The recent removal or plans to remove Confederate Memorial's and monuments in cities throughout the South has sparked some very heated debates. On one side, critics of the monuments say it is in an immoral to celebrate the instances of American history that are enveloped in racism in the mistreatment of other human beings, specifically African Americans. Conversely, proponents argue that the removal of Confederate monuments amount to a degradation of our country's history and amount to cultural genocide.   

 

I find myself in a unique position in this entire debate. For one thing, and the American history of my ancestry is steeped in southern allegiance. I was born and raised in the south, right in the heart of the Annabella in fact. My family’s ties to the South go all the way back to the mid-1600s. Both of my great-great-grandfathers didn't just fight on the side of the South, they were commanding officers in the Confederate Army. In fact, one of my great-grandfathers and great-uncles gave their life for the confederate cause and were killed in “The Seven Days Battle” in Virgina. 

 

Yet, even with my ancestral connections, I am more than aware that the primary catalyst for the war of the states was over the right to enslave African Americans. This is something that is substantiated by facts and should be beyond rebuke. 

 

The truth is, as much as some, adamantly defend the celebration of Civil War history has been heritage not hate, many Southern descendants have indeed held on to the hateful messages associated with the abolition of slavery. Take, for example, the state of Mississippi did not ratify the abolishment of slavery until 2013. That's right, you did not misread that, the state legislators of Mississippi did ratify the 13th Amendment to the U.S. constitution until four years ago. Then, of course, you have the repeated association of confederate symbols such as the confederate flag with racist hate groups, most famously the Klu Klux Klan.

 

In essence, the historical perspectives of the Civil War have never truly been celebrated by the majority. Rather, the symbolism of southern insurrection has been attributed to racism and concepts of white superiority. Though there may be some meaningful Civil War scholars out there, the novice historian who cherishes their Southern pride has done so by including more hate and less heritage from the entire topic. 

 

There are also the political underpinnings that modern supporters have used. Repeatedly, the removal of civil war monuments from public land has been cited as an attack by liberals on history. If you really think about it, this is slippery slope logic that is enveloped in fallacy. Why do I say that? Well, let's think about it. First of all, many of the same conservative pundits who accuse removal of monuments to be the work of the “liberal agenda” are also the individuals who are the most adamant denigrators of women’s Marches, or any protest against conservativism.

 

The most obstinate critics of liberalism are often simultaneously the biggest devotees to nationalism flirting on isolationism. However, to be devoted to the concept of Americanism and then supportive of the Confederacy are nonsensical regardless of how one approaches the subject. Why? Well, because the Confederate States of America, literally represent a time when a faction of individuals engaged in a formal secession and violent insurrection against the United States of America. Basically, how can one logically mitigate being offended by peaceful protest against the U.S. government in contemporary times, while celebrating a historical violent uprising against the same government?

 

Most importantly, as I’ve already mentioned, the Southern insurrection is firmly rooted in racism and slavery. The second sentence of the State of Georgia’s Declaration of Causes for Secession reads, “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. The second sentence in Mississippi’s same document, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world.” Texas buried their reasoning a tad deeper in their like-document of secession and didn’t broach the topic until the third paragraph. However, their rationale was directly more racist than some of its Confederate cohort states. “She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery-- the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits-- a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”

 

We could keep going through all of the eleven Southern States that made up the Confederate States of America articles of secession, however, they all read similarly in some fashion or another. Basically, there is no other way to shade the basis behind the Civil War, it fundamentally revolved around state’s rights to own other human beings. This, of course, is the quintessence of why Confederate symbolism has been adopted by racist hate groups for the last 152 years.

 

Which brings up to the very history of the monuments being removed currently:

 

In New Orleans, the now removed “Liberty Monument” was built in 1891, the same year that Democratic legislature who passed laws that disenfranchised most African Americans. The monument was built to commemorate the “Battle of Liberty Place,” an attempted insurrection by the Crescent City White League against Reconstruction Era Louisiana state government on September 14, 1874. In 1932, the city added an inscription to the monument that expressed white supremacist’s views.

 

The now removed, Jefferson Davis Monument in New Orleans, was erected in 1911. The statue was a monument to Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. The dedication ceremony was legally enforced as a “Whites Only” event.

 

The set to be removed, Robert E. Lee monument in New Orleans was dedicated in 1884 and erected on Lee Circle. The circle itself is named in the Confederate General’s honor. Arguably, the Robert E. Lee monument has more historical connections than the previously mentioned monuments, as it was initially proposed to be built in 1870 the year of Lee’s death. However, it would take 7 years before the incentive was great enough for donors to make the financial investment to make the statue a reality.

 

As I type this, the P.G.T. Beauregard Equestrian Statue is being taken down in New Orleans. The monument dedicated to the Confederate General was built and dedicated in New Orleans in 1915.

Lastly, the Robert E. Lee Sculpture in Charlottesville, Virginia, which the city’s council recently voted to be removed, was commissioned in 1917 and erected in 1924. This monument was recently noteworthy as being the site that white supremacist Richard Spencer led a torch-lit protest at.

 

Essentially, all of the monuments that have been removed, or are set to be removed, were commissioned or erected in direct connection of the Progressive Era of the 1890s to the 1920s, during a period of time when the country instituted the system of racial segregation laws known as Jim Crow laws. Basically, at these monuments original construction, there were meant to be symbolism of racism and white supremacy. The intent behind their establishment was not to memorialize southern history. The monuments were created in order to celebrate historical beliefs of racial superiority, disenfranchisement, and immorality.

 

Ultimately, the entire problem lays right at the feet of these sculptures, because they are monuments and not memorials. Most people probably never consider the philosophical or semantic differences between monuments and memorials. However, indeed there are stark differences between a monument and a memorial. Art philosopher, Arthur Danto provides the simplest, yet clearest understanding between the distinction between monuments and memorials. Monuments are erected so we shall always remember something. Memorials are built so we shall never forget something.

 

Monuments are meant to celebrate memorable origins and symbolize mythical beginnings. Conversely, memorials are intended to ritualize our remembrance of points in time when reality ends. Eventually, the entire fault can be attributed to the people who initially established these civil war shrines as monuments and not memorials. The monuments intent and origins had nothing to do with the perseverance of a conclusion to a historical period in the country. They were built with the intention of celebrating an ideological belief system that is centered on white supremacy.

 

At the end of the day, we shouldn’t be politicizing the entire conversation of these Civil War monuments. If for no other reason, that it causes one to surf a hypocritical wave of political allegiance of ideology. Lastly, if one truly cares about the historical context of the Confederate States of America, then they need to support the actual establishment of memorialization of the history and not celebration. Only then can we as a nation make legitimate strides to close a racist chapter in American history, and then begin working towards an inclusive society for all Americans. Truthfully, if the country had started long ago towards being an inclusive society, we wouldn’t even be talking about this entire topic right now. Let us come together and support the future and stop hanging on to the past. Especially, when the past we seem to keep wanting to hang on too, represents some of the worst parts of our bygone eras.

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