Monuments Reconsidered

I organized a dinner Wednesday night for the Gettysburg Foundation on the topic of Confederate statues in Southern states. This was prompted by the six month anniversary of the march in Charlottesville, VA by neo-Nazis who objected to plans to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee, then proceeded to walk with lighted torches and guns onto the campus of University of Virginia to the iconic statue of Thomas Jefferson.

The participants at the dinner came from the human rights movement, museums, academia, business and the media. They came from Southern states such as Florida and Georgia, Midwestern states including Illinois, and the Northeast. Here are the highlights of the dinner:

  1. The statues should not disappear — Our historian Craig Symonds of the U.S. Naval War College made a strong argument for keeping the statues as a means of prompting conversation about America’s difficult past. The location and intention of the statues is critical. Some commemorate historical events on the battlefield, such as Lee’s statue on the Gettysburg battlefield. They should remain. Others were erected in the Jim Crow era to celebrate white supremacy; they should remain only if accompanied by an explanatory text that illuminates their role as artifacts of the Lost Cause.
  2. Move the statues out of the public square and into museums — Former Economist journalist Matthew Bishop, now at the Rockefeller Foundation, suggested that, especially now that social media is increasingly spreading division and intolerance, it would be good for society if the physical spaces we share celebrate only those things that unite us, which statues associated with unjust treatment of significant groups of society certainly do not.
  3. There are objectionable statues in all parts of the U.S:, not just the South — Several participants pointed to the statue of President Theodore Roosevelt outside of the Museum of Natural History. Roosevelt, on horseback, is flanked by a native American and an African in tribal dress on foot, as if leading them. One participant asked, “What would I say to a young African American visiting the museum about this statue? That it represents a by-gone period of U.S. history?”
  4. Certain aspects of history require a strong point of view — Alice Greenwald, President @ CEO of the 9/11 Museum and Memorial, was very convincing about the institution’s imperative to include representation of the perpetrators of the terrorist horror visited on New York City. “We want visitors to understand that these were human beings who made a conscious decision to commit mass murder; some were relatively affluent, well-educated young men who chose this course.”
  5. This is about more than statues — My daughter Amanda, a recent graduate of Stanford, was upset by the school’s dismissal of a request from native American students to remove the name of Father Serra from a dorm and road on campus because of his ill-treatment of native people in the Spanish tenure in California. She contrasted that to Yale’s decision to change the name of Calhoun College because the former Vice President was the most enthusiastic supporter of the institution of slavery. “Yale had a clear process for evaluating the historical record,” she said.
  6. Statues Prompt an Educational Moment — John Allman, headmaster of Trinity School, who grew up in Atlanta near the Stone Mountain monument to Confederate generals, suggested that there be historical interpretation next to each statue. If there were shortcomings in past behavior, these could be noted and explained.
  7. The study of the Civil War — This has gone through several phases. Initially, it was the moral victory of the Union over the evils of slavery. Then there was the legend of the Lost Cause, where each side had equal justification for the War. Symonds’ view is that the War was the inevitable clash over slavery, which was so deeply integrated into the economic system of the South that there was no choice but to fight. But he adds that slavery was inherently evil, with utterly inhuman and unforgiveable treatment of the slaves.
  8. History Forced Through a Factional Lens — Greenwald said that we are missing national values that bind us together rather than separate us, and that are discoverable in uncomfortable historical truths.

Brian Henderson, a former Merrill Lynch executive, shared a story from his visit to Blair House, more commonly known as the President’s guest house, during which he saw a prominently displayed framed original letter from Robert E. Lee to President Lincoln. In the letter Lee declined the President’s invitation to lead the Union Army. “The reason for his decline was due to his allegiance to his family and fellow Virginians. When I asked why the letter was displayed so prominently, I was told it serves as a reminder to visitors of what once divided the country and our capacity to ‘come together.’”

A final thought on this all-important subject comes from Matt Moen, president of the Gettysburg Foundation. He talked about the Eternal Light Peace Memorial dedicated in 1938, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg: “It has lit the sky every day since, a reminder of how Americans are so much better together, when hope triumphs over fear.”

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

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