The movement to take them down gained momentum after the 2015 massacre in a Charleston church by an avowed white supremacist intent on killing African-Americans. South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, now President Trump's Ambassador to the United Nations, ordered the removal of the Confederate flag that flew on the state capitol grounds; and that was accomplished with support from the state legislature amid little protest.
But now the radical right groups have taken up the cause. Last weekend a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia planned by white supremacists, was ostensibly to protest the planned removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park. It turned violent and resulted in three deaths.
Now the question of what to do about the hundreds of monuments has become urgent, as the protest fervor increases and is fueled by comments from President Trump. North Carolina passed a law last year forbidding their removal, but a group of defiant protesters pulled down a statue in Durham. Some of those protesters are now demanding to be arrested -- they did break the law -- to further dramatize their act of civil disobedience.
President Trump says we should not destroy "our history and culture." Tina Fey had a quick answer: Donald Trump wouldn't hesitate one minute to tear down a historical statue if he could build condominiums on the plot. He already proved that when he defied the "historic preservation" designation of a renowned Art Deco building in New York to build some fancy new condominiums.
Aside from comic quips, though, what is the serious answer -- especially now that a Democratic minority leader in the Georgia state legislature and a leading candidate for governor, Rep. Stacie Abrams, is calling for removal of the biggest Confederate monument of all: the Rushmore-like, monumental carving on the side of Stone Mountain?
Stone Mountain Park is now a 3200 acre park surrounding the largest granite outcropping in the world, with lakes, hiking trails, and camping sites. It is a major outdoor recreational venue, site of concerts, fireworks displays, as well as family outings. The mountain base has a circumference of five miles. On one side, a carving depicts three Confederate leaders on horseback, President Jefferson Davis and generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
This presents a far bigger controversy than a single statue occupying a few square feet of ground in an often forgotten site. In addition to being the central focus of an outdoor recreation park and a veneration of the Old South, Stone Mountain was the site in 1915 of the revival of the Ku Klux Klan as an organization. The land owners, at the time, granted the Klan the perpetual right to hold celebrations there, although that right was abrogated when the State of Georgia bought the property in 1960.
The carving itself was begun by the sculptor who later worked on Mount Rushmore. The Stone Mountain project began in 1916, was abandoned for some 30 years, then restarted after the state bought it; and it was finally completed in 1972.
Please don't misunderstand. Those are merely historical and logistical challenges that make this particular monument more difficult to remove. It does not change the basic moral question.
So let's begin to tackle that basic question. These monuments do have historical significance. But some have asked: Who puts up statues to those who start wars and lose them? Are these men heroes? Or are they traitors? After all, they attacked and fought against our nation, albeit a divided nation from which their states had seceded, dividing the young United State.
They were on the wrong side of history. Not just because they lost but because the core of their argument -- states' rights -- was based on the preserving the institution and economic power of slavery, which we now consider antithetical to democracy and our national values.
There is no moral argument for slavery.
It is one of the immutable wrongs in a civilized world.
Unquestionably the issue was slavery, however much later revisionists want to claim that it was a question of states' rights. But I submit that the question of self-determination for states was not sufficient to fight a war over -- except as the issue that they wanted to self-determine was the right to continue to own slaves. That was the "states' right" that they fought a war over.
So, here's Point 1: These monuments commemorate the men who led the South in losing a civil war, based on a universal wrong. Yes, I know the tired arguments that it was about valor and honor and sacrifice of ancestors that were fighting for what they wanted to preserve -- their way of life. But, while true for them, it is no longer credible as a rationalization for the horrors of slavery.
Point 2: The statues were not erected in the aftermath of that Civil War but much later -- during two periods when the racial struggle was being fought once again. Those two time periods of Confederate monument building were: (1) The early years of the 20th century, when the Jim Crow laws were being enacted and white people wanted to reassert their dominance after the economic devastation of the war and the Reconstruction that followed. (2) the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s-70s over the rights of African-Americans to have the same civil and humane rights as white Americans.
These were both periods of black people asserting their equality and white people resisting. That's when they put up statues to their dead heroes and the Lost Cause. The statues represent the wish to return to the past, to white privilege and white supremacy.
That is, that's what they represent for white people: privilege and supremacy.
But think for a moment what they represent for our black citizens. Oppression, slavery, cruelty, dehumanization, forceful separation of families, night riders terrorizing black communities, lynchings -- and no education, no voting rights, nothing but what the white owner allowed you to have.
Now, think about that for a while. Is that what we want to honor and celebrate?