Despite Confederate monument removals, debate over effigies in Georgia still red-hotCredit: Kelly Jordan
By Sean Keenan
Georgia has exorcised some of its Confederate ghosts in recent years, although many still haunt the state’s public spaces, casting shadows in communities that have largely matured since the horrors of the Civil War.
Of the original 211 monuments to the Confederacy installed in Georgia, a dozen have been removed — most of them in the last two decades. That means, somewhat ironically, the Southern state, having nixed six percent of these controversial memorials, has gotten rid of more Rebel Army effigies than most U.S. states, according to research by BeenVerified.
Still, almost 200 remain, and in a country in the throes of intense discussions over racial politics unmatched since the Civil Rights Movement, the debate over Confederate monuments and their place in society remains red-hot.
211 Georgia place-names honoring Confederates
This map depicts a working list of place-names compiled by data-mining firm BeenVerified
On Thursday, the World Affairs Council of Atlanta hosted a webinar during which historians debated the merits and pitfalls of removing and maintaining the installations memorializing the losing side of a war over the right to own people as property — or a war over states’ rights that ended and transformed into a battle about “Southern heritage,” depending on who you ask.
“I think [Confederate monuments] should be removed from public spaces, and communities should get to decide if they want to maintain them,” Robin Morris, an associate history professor at Agnes Scott, said during the discussion.
But making those decisions isn’t so simple, said Rodney Cook, Jr., founder and president of the National Monuments Foundation. “These reminders of systemic brutality could disappear,” he said, if they’re not preserved and complemented with the proper historic context.
Cook acknowledged that not all Confederate statues or streets named for so-called “heroes” should remain in their original locations, but he said it’s important not to totally erase the uncomfortable memories of history. Post-World War II Germany, for example, he said, is full of “historical amnesia.” “Some young people don’t even remember the Berlin Wall,” Cook claimed.
Cook, like others who have defended the importance of protecting at least the history represented by Confederate monuments, said that, in many cases, tearing them down or even moving them to museums equates to censoring history. “If you relegate [monuments] to museums, you will have a fraction of the population reminded of them,” he said.
Not so, says Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian of U.S. slavery, legal scholar, and member of the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery.
“History will still be taught,” she said in an interview with The Harvard Gazette. “We will know who Robert E. Lee was. Who Jefferson Davis was. Who Frederick Douglass was. Who Abraham Lincoln was. There are far more dangerous threats to history. Defunding the humanities, cutting history classes and departments. Those are the real threats to history.”
Adding to that notion, Morris argued during Thursday’s discussion that statues reminding of the Jim Crow era “haven’t worked.” She doesn’t think they adequately remind of the horrors of those times, but rather “they just remind of the glorifying of it.”
“There’s always this accusation of revisionist history,” Morris continued. “But if we didn’t revise our knowledge of science, we’d be treating COVID with leeches right now.”
Incidentally, it seems, the further America distances itself from how things were during and immediately after the Civil War, the more people are able to have conversations about properly contextualizing the memories of slavery and the people who perpetuated it.
So says Douglas Blackmon, a professor at Georgia State University’s Creative Media Industries Institute and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.
In an interview with SaportaReport, Blackmon, who also served on the Atlanta City Council’s Confederate Monuments Advisory Committee during Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration, said that America’s gradual progress toward racial equality and equity has helped amplify such discussions.
According to Blackmon, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young once told him in an interview, “I can’t recall Martin Luther King, Jr. ever saying a word about the Confederate flag.”
“In the scheme of what they were up against,” Blackmon added, “Confederate monuments were not a priority of any kind. [Passing] the Civil Rights Act was far more important.”
Now, though, “as a byproduct of the progress we’ve made,” conversations about Confederate monuments have been given breathing room alongside those about civil rights advances, Blackmon said.
Additionally, in some ways, the Donald Trump presidency has galvanized the passions propelling the debate over Civil War relics — on both sides of the argument.
Of course Trump’s remarks about “our beautiful statues and monuments” being threatened in the wake of the 2017 Charlottesville attack, when an avowed white supremacist struck and killed progressive activist Heather Heyer with his vehicle, jolted opponents of Confederate monuments to action.
“Trump’s presence [and rhetoric] has so unnerved progressives, centrists, and liberals … to make a stand against these monuments,” Blackmon said. “His conduct has alarmed people to realize that maybe it really matters that their tax dollars go toward maintaining white supremacist statues.”
And for those lobbying to see statues, street signs and other installations paying homage to the Confederacy removed or relocated, the most urgent need is for solid leadership — officials who appreciate that many people don’t want to pay taxes to maintain fixtures honoring traitors — said Blackmon.
“Every time a government worker walks out to a Confederate monument with a leaf blower, or cleans the bird poop off it, or repairs or repaints the mortar, that is an expenditure of the public funds that people have no choice but to pay, and it is a re-expression of what that monument says [about white supremacy],” he said.
In the meantime, Blackmon added: “Atlanta should erect a new monument to the enslaved African-Americans whose labor made it possible for Atlanta to emerge as a great city, and for the South to emerge from its backwardsness, and for American to become a great country.”
(Header image, via Kelly Jordan: The fate of the carving of Confederate leaders on the face of Stone Mountain has been hotly debated for years.)