Recent events have reignited the debate over racially-offensive historical monuments. Several statues of Confederate leaders and American historical icons including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Christopher Columbus were torn down by protesters along with statues of Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln that are planned to be removed. To go so far as to remove statues of someone who emancipated the slaves raises the question of if the removals are going too far, or maybe it’s justified.
The removal of statues started to gain traction in 2017 after the “Unite the Right” Charlottesville protests. These protests were in response to the proposed removal of a Robert E. Lee statue and eventually turned violent. After the scene at Charlottesville, the idea gained public attention and got support from Democrats and racial minority groups. The issue has gained recent attention over the death of George Floyd. However, unlike previous removals, protesters took the statues’ removal into their own hands, “Protesters in cities around the United States have been tearing down, defacing and otherwise vandalizing statues.” Pressure by citizens prompted governors to take action like Roy Cooper of North Carolina who took down three statues despite the existence of legislation to protect them..
The recent protests have certainly put pressure on authorities to act, but what does the opposition have to say? There are many arguments that are made for keeping the statues. Some see these statues as part of their heritage and representing freedom of expression. They do not remember them as people who fought to uphold slavery but rather people who fought to protect their way of life and their family. Others say that the statues should remain as a reminder of past history and a deterrent for such actions in the future. There are also concerns the removal of confederate statues might continue on to the removal of monuments to the founding fathers who many hold dearly. It is a common theme among the arguments that people are worried how far the removals could go and wonder if they are at all necessary to fight racism if they are reminders of the past rather than reflections of the present.
Regardless of the legitimacy of the arguments, a large portion of the population supports the statues to remain. According to a 2020 Quinnipiac University poll, 44% of American adults said that they wanted the statues compared to 52% who wanted their removal. But, even with this larger opposition a majority of statues still remain. There are around 700 identified monuments and statues in the US not including schools and other buildings that were named after Confederates. There are also laws in seven Southern states that protect monuments to some degree, including three that ban their removal outright. With such strong idolization and protections, these statues remain part of the culture in many places and are unlikely to be removed quickly.
So why do people support the removal of statues that have been around for so long? The reason is undoubtedly racism. Monuments to the confederacy were mainly built during the Jim Crow era as a way to intimidate African-Americans and reinforce racial hierarchies in the South. This, in combination with black codes and segregation, created a hostile atmosphere for African-Americans and affirmed that nothing had changed since the Antebellum South. Now that the monuments still remain today many view it in the same light. While there have certainly been advancements in civil rights, the fact that these statues still remain signals to people that there is still much left to change. They believe that if these are statues that glorify those who fought to maintain slavery, then these statues also glorify a history of slavery, segregation, and racism in America.
Now that protests over justice for black victims of police violence have gained support across the country, their aims have expanded into the realm of removing racially charged statues. Their removal has expanded from Confederate monuments, and now targets statues of slaveholders and statues that show images of minorities as subservient. A statue of Teddy Roosevelt on a horse with a Native American and an African-American below him is going to be removed along with a statue of Abraham Lincoln that shows a slave below him being emancipated. These removals have brought up the question of how far is too far when taking down monuments of the past, especially since Grant and Lincoln actively fought against the Confederacy in the Civil War. Others argue (like in the case of the Lincoln statue) that upholding images of African-Americans dependent on whites is inherently racist.
There remains strong support on both sides of the issue, but recent protests have revealed larger support for the statues’ removal. But, even with this increased support there still remains a strong belief among the Southern population that the statues should stand for one reason or another. The future of the issue is a bit uncertain, but what is certain is that protests are not dying down and the stances held around the issue are likely to change for better or for worse.