Protesters gather in front of the old Durham County Courthouse where days earlier a confederate statue was toppled by demonstrators in Durham, North Carolina, on Aug. 18, 2017. (LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images)

After a white man gunned down nine Black parishioners at The Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, advocates successfully renamed, relocated, or removed 377 Confederate memorials across the U.S., according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. However, the anti-Black, racism, adherence to white supremacy, and belief in the “Lost Cause” myth of the Confederacy that drove Dylann Roof’s murderous actions remain. Now, as the murder of George Floyd and the successive uprisings over anti-Black police brutality have reignited the conversation on what to do with Confederate statues in public places, advocates say that it’s also vital to confront the beliefs and myths those memorials represented.

Just because memorials and statues may be out of sight, the deep-rooted problems they embodied are not out of mind. As noted in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s most recent report on Confederate memorials, Confederate and other racist statues are coming down across the country, but the narratives that drive the ideologies behind them are harder to disrupt. 

“It’s less about putting up different monuments but finding more effective ways to facilitate dialogue about race and inequality in America and to have broader conversations that can promote community healing,” Kimberly Probolus, a fellow and research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center told Prism.

As pressure mounts for more racist monuments to come down, public officials, organizers, artists, and art historians, are now grappling with questions of what, if anything, should replace them, who gets to make those decisions, and what it means to fully reckon with our history, rather than erasing or ignoring it. 

Public memorials shape public memory

What a nation chooses to commemorate through monuments signifies what stories it deems essential to remember. For instance, Germany’s denazification efforts have been ongoing since the end of World War II—there are no monuments celebrating the Nazi regime left in the country, and “approving of, glorifying, or justifying Nazi rule,” carries a penalty of up to three years in prison. In stark contrast, the U.S. has never embarked on a meaningful truth and reconciliation effort about its history of slavery and anti-Black racism. As a result, a disconcerting amount of the country’s monument landscape uplifts a romanticized version of the Civil War and the role of the Confederacy, in part due to a concerted effort after Reconstruction by Confederate heritage groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Today, there are currently 2,089 memorials to the Confederacy, according to the SPLC’s report. And not all of them are statues—streets, schools, and other public structures also bear the names of Confederates.

“There are more roadways honoring Confederates than there are monuments,” Probolus said.

According to historian David Blight’s op-ed in The New York Times, the “Confederate Lost Cause is one of the most deeply ingrained mythologies in American history,” one that falsely argues that the Confederacy never fought to preserve slavery and that it was never truly defeated. This mythology transformed a story of rebellion, treason, and defeat into one of triumph, honor, and patriotism. Most notably, that transformation conveniently elides the Confederacy’s commitment to an entire way of life built and maintained on the backs of enslaved Black people and how Black people continue to be harmed by that legacy and its adherents. And the desire to cling to that mythology can have dire consequences—former President Donald Trump regularly exploited the narrative of the Lost Cause, stoking white resentment among his base that culminated in the Jan. 6 attempted insurrection and continues to threaten the democratic process.

Even when states agree to remove a Confederate statue, the process of tearing it down has varied widely across the country. In Virginia, former Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond shortly after Floyd’s murder. The decision was challenged in court by Confederate sympathizers but ultimately affirmed by the state Supreme Court. In Philadelphia, after initially refusing to do so, Mayor Jim Kenney removed the statue of former Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, a well-documented racist and homophobe, without additional approval. However, many mayors are hamstrung by state laws that prohibit the removal of historical monuments without the approval of the governor. 

At the federal level, the House passed a bill in 2020 that would see to the removal of all Confederate memorials from the U.S. Capitol, but the Senate has yet to do the same. A 2018 Smithsonian investigation found that American taxpayers spent at least $40 million to preserve Confederate monuments, parks, museums, libraries, and other artifacts between 2008 and 2018. In some cases, states initiated legislation that would make it even more difficult to remove remaining Confederate monuments and increase penalties for vandalizing monuments. 

Further, according to Erin L. Thompson, art crime professor and author of “Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of American Monuments,” many Confederate statues that were removed from their original perches have merely been relocated—to less prominent public spaces, private properties, or organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy—or stored away while city officials decide where to put them. 

This includes the Confederate flag that flew in front of the South Carolina capitol building the day Roof, a self-described white supremacist, descended on the Mother Emanual church to shoot the Black congregationalists. The flag came down less than a month after the murders, but it wasn’t destroyed or put into storage. It’s now housed in the Confederate Relic Room, a United Daughters of the Confederacy-backed museum located in the state’s military history museum.

Who represents power and presence in public? 

Black activists have long recognized the harm of Confederate monuments and the Lost Cause narrative. Five years after the Civil War ended, Frederick Douglass stated that “monuments to the Lost Cause will prove monuments of folly.” Unfortunately, far too many people still see those monuments not as reminders of folly but as homages to venerable figures. And that has concerning implications for how our national memory is being shaped.

Understanding how collective memories are influenced and how to talk about them is part of the mission of the Monument Lab, a nonprofit public art and history studio that works with artists, activists, and cultural institutions. The lab defines a monument as “a statement of power and presence in public,” which illuminates a striking, but not unsurprising, slant to the story of the U.S.’ racial views. Not only are Confederate soldiers commemorated in historically significant areas such as the Arlington National Cemetery, but there are also remarkably fewer monuments celebrating Black abolitionists. 

Today’s Confederate monuments were mostly constructed in response to Black civil rights progress. Over a two-year period between 1910 and 1912, 96 monuments were built across the U.S., around the 50th anniversary of the Civil War, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Then, in response to the monumental changes the Civil Rights movement brought, Confederate sympathizers named schools after Confederates and resurrected the Confederate battle flag as a white supremacist symbol. Another 45 monuments have been built since 2000. 

According to Monument Lab’s National Monument Audit, the first of its kind ever published, Robert E. Lee is the sixth most documented individual memorialized in U.S. public monuments, more than John F. Kennedy, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. The audit also found that 50% of the top 50 individuals who have been memorialized enslaved other people, and only 3% of Confederate monuments mention the word defeat, and even fewer mention the word slavery.  

By contrast, there are few statues honoring Black abolitionists, civil rights activists, and other non-white historical figures scattered throughout the nation. The audit noted that of the memorials covered by the study, only five out of the top 50 commemorated people were Black or Indigenous people; there were no U.S.-born Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, or self-identified LGBTQ+ people in the top 50 list. That inequity has real-world consequences. When few monuments commemorate the lives and actions of Black people in America, it implies that the role of Black people in American culture is passive, rather than one in which Black people have been and are active and critical participants in ending slavery, demanding the passage of civil rights legislation, and advocating for a more robust democracy. 

“We always talk about abolitionists, but Black people weren’t just organizing around freedom from slavery,” said Dr. Gabrielle Foreman, a historian at Pennsylvania State University. “We wanted full and complete citizenship rights, and we were organizing for seven decades for the very same things that are still on the table today.”

Monuments serve as part of a nation’s broader social knowledge, and who gets memorialized in public life influences who we view as worthy of our collective memory-making process. We can only remember what is told to us, and monuments instruct the viewer to understand the history that usually upholds a specific national identity. The lack of radical Republicans and abolitionists speaks to the intent to ignore the role Black people have played in pushing the U.S. closer to democracy.

What goes up when racist monuments come down?

While control over most of the removed Confederate monuments remains far from public hands, the fate of the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, provides an instructive example of how a symbol of racist rebellion and the narrative it embodies can be transformed. As a teen in 2016, Zyahna Bryant started the petition to remove the Charlottesville Robert E. Lee monument, suggesting that “monuments should be a space and area for reflection, and the next generation should look like people being able to create their own narratives.” The monument, which was the focus of the deadly Unite the Right 2017 protest, will be donated to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center (JSAAHC). 

Andrea Douglas, the executive director of the heritage center, told The New York Times how this was a method of “taking something that was harmful and the source of trauma, and transforming it into something more [reflective] of the democratic, communal space.” The center currently plans to melt down the 1,100-pound statue and use the raw material to create a new piece of community-informed public art.

Other advocates are looking to create new monuments to honor those who fought the Confederacy and highlight the injustices it perpetuated. Perhaps the most notable attempt to posit new narratives through public art is the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the first memorial dedicated to the history of racial terror lynchings, according to EJI.

One of the artists behind the Memorial for Peace and Justice, Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, joined forces with a collective of activists to create a traveling sculpture they dubbed The Blank Slate Monument. It depicts four Black people—an enslaved person, a lynched Union soldier, a Black mother, and a baby, all stacked on top of each other. According to the group’s website, it seeks to serve as a “vehicle for nonviolent protest of Confederate memorials and spaces.”

Elkahir Balla, one of the co-founders of the collective, which now calls itself the Blank Slate Movement, said that the piece was originally supposed to be a protest piece erected in front of Confederate monuments but consistently met pushback from the various cities they approached. 

“Every city and museum fought tooth and nail not to let us do this project,” Balla said. 

Undeterred, the group decided to go and put the monument on the back of a truck with hydraulic tilts and take the monument on a “guerilla-style” national tour. The monument was at the backdrop of the racial reckoning of 2020—it was first unveiled in Louisville, Kentucky, where Breonna Taylor was murdered by police earlier that year. It then journeyed through the country, making stops in Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. 

According to Morris Audley Sinclair, another Blank Slate Movement co-founder, the statue attracted people of all different backgrounds who hopefully came away with a better understanding of how white supremacy is ingrained within American society. 

Repairing public space 

In 2014, critically acclaimed author N.K. Jemisin gave a speech in which she asserted that “[r]econciliation is a part of the healing process, but how can there be healing when the wounds are still being inflicted? How can we begin to talk about healing when all the perpetrators have to do is toss out dog whistles and disclaimers of evil intent to pretend they’ve done no harm?” The fact is that for many, especially Black Americans, the continued idealization of the Confederacy and its adherents is an ongoing wound, one that can’t be healed while much of the country chooses to avoid confronting the Confederate legacy and its shame.

That same fear of feeling shame over the enslavement and abuse of Black people in America underpins the recent attempts to pass bills that limit the accurate portrayal of America’s racist history. However, as The New York Times Magazine correspondent and Howard University professor Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted, “Feeling ashamed of shameful things is not BAD. It’s called being an empathetic and moral human being. Shame helps us do better. When I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum about the impact of the US’s atomic bomb, I felt shame.”

In a culture built on the ideals of individualism and exceptionalism, shame is not a feeling that Americans are expected to carry, but confronting that shame and its source is the only way to move forward. The legacy of the Confederacy stretches further than any single memorial, and destroying these monuments alone won’t erase the legacy of slavery, particularly when the same sentiment is expressed through MAGA hats and “Don’t Tread On Me’ paraphernalia. 

As the late Desmond Tutu observed, reconciliation can’t be achieved until those who have been on the underside of history see a qualitative difference between repression and freedom. There can’t be any real healing without a full reckoning with how romanticizing the Confederacy upholds white supremacy. In doing so, the country must listen to those whose lives have been irrevocably affected by the history of American slavery about how to reconceive of who and what we honor in our public spaces and transform them to promote accountability, understanding, and healing. 

Trevor Smith

Trevor Smith is a New York-based narrative and cultural strategist who writes and researches on topics including racial inequality, the wealth gap, and reparations. He is currently the director of narrative...