Late Saturday, prompted by events in Virginia, Mayor Jim Gray announced he would expedite the removal of two Confederate monuments from the lawn of the former Fayette County Courthouse.
The likenesses of John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckenridge have been public targets since the deadly shooting in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 underscored the connection between Confederate symbolism and racial violence. But violence in Charlottesville added a new sense of immediacy.
As one who has studied the history of Confederate monuments in Kentucky, I was, as recently as a couple of years ago, advocating against this very thing. I was then committed to what historians and others call “contextualism.” Contextualism aims, through historical explanation, to displace the original intent of the statues, which was to honor the Confederate Lost Cause.
As I argue at length in my book, “Creating a Confederate Kentucky,” whites erected Confederate monuments not only to remember the past, but to control the present.
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Initiated in an age where African-Americans sought to make social, economic and political gains, the monuments were a powerful reminder of who was in power. It was no coincidence that most appeared between 1890 and 1915, the heyday of lynching and the dawn of Jim Crow.
Historians and others who adopt this approach understand how and why Confederate monuments are offensive but argue that physically removing them from public places constitutes an erasure and a white-washing of history. Instead, they advocate adding the voices of the oppressed to the historical landscape through signage, markers and other statues representing the stories and experiences of slavery and Jim Crow.
My views changed, however, after seeing the failure of such a strategy in Louisville.
In 2012, the University of Louisville christened Freedom Park, a model example of contextualization. Designed by both historians and community members, the park includes multiple interpretive panels, which present and honor the struggle for black freedom over the course of the city’s history. It was designed to counter the message of white power in the form of the hulking Confederate monument just across the street.
In my mind, it should have worked. Presenting the history of oppression and resilience of African-Americans should have denuded the Confederate monument of its power as a symbol of the city’s history, and accordingly, its meaning in the present.
But it did not. In a present in which racial injustice pervades the everyday life of so many, it turns out that no amount of historical context is particularly helpful. The public continued to protest and the city and the university responded by removing the statue last year.
Contextualization in public spaces doesn’t work because monuments speak not only to who had power in the past, but who has it in the present. This is evident in the aggrieved voices who call for their removal. It is also clear from the voices of the white supremacists in Charlottesville who, in their cries of “You will not replace us,” rallied not so much for Robert E. Lee, as much as against the broader attack on white power and identity his removal represents.
In times like these, removing Confederate monuments from public places is not an erasure of history, but rather a statement by the cities and towns which choose to move them that the values for which the Confederacy stood before and after the war no longer represent them.
Some may see removing them as disrespectful of history or the people who lived it. But we should never honor or valorize people of history at the expense of the fellow humans we live amongst today. To prize the past over the present is to fetishize it and to create false idols of our ancestors.
Removing Confederate statues from places of public honor will not solve the injustices of today, but it is at least a powerful step in acknowledging them. We can hope that real acts of reform will follow the symbolic, and that bare earth and empty pedestals left by removed statues will not leave a void, but rather space for real change.
Anne E. Marshall, a Lexington native, is an associate professor at Mississippi State University.