The controversy over Confederate war memorials and statues that has ignited protests and a resurgence of violent white nationalism cannot be understood outside of the historical context in which these and other monuments in the United States were erected. Many white Americans are unaware that these were the consequence of coordinated efforts to enshrine white supremacy. They do not exist to preserve history or heritage, but to ensconce the notion of white dominance over previously enslaved or ethnically cleansed groups of people. One way this was achieved was in placing them in gentrified neighbourhoods which displaced local black communities or desecrating the sacred places of native peoples forced off their ancestral lands.
Surges in their construction were seen in the 1910s through 1930s following Reconstruction and a rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and in the 1950s and 60s as a racist answer to the Civil Rights Era. Concurrent with the dedication of many Confederate war memorials were the horrors of lynching and Jim Crow. And there was a coordinated effort to whitewash history in these eras as well. Examples of this include the notoriously racist film “Birth of a Nation” and the puff piece “Gone with the Wind” which sought to cast the Antebellum south in a noble light.
In truth, most statues and monuments in the United States are emblems of white supremacy. Even the much beloved Mount Rushmore is little more than a testament to ethnic cleansing. On it the images of four US presidents were carved into a sacred mountain for the Lakota by Gutzon Borglum, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, from 1927 to 1941. The choice of presidents was no accidental message either. As Ron Way, a former official with the Department of the Interior and National Park Service, put it:
“George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Abraham Lincoln famously emancipated slaves, but he supported eradicating Indian tribes from western lands and approved America’s largest-ever mass execution, the hanging of 38 Dakota in Mankato for their alleged crimes in the 1862 war along the Minnesota River. Teddy Roosevelt, in his “The Winning of the West,” wrote: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are … .””
Many of the monuments we see festooning city parks, on university lawns or looming over government buildings were designed to obscure the people’s record, not enhance our understanding of history. When the Spanish built cathedrals over razed Aztec, Mayan or Inca temples and replaced imagery of native history with statues of Catholic saints and European “explorers” they were sending a clear message of dominance and demoralization to the indigenous population. They understood the ruthless power of erasing a people’s history. Similar actions have been taken all around the world where one group dominates another.
And the same can be said of the many statues that elevate racists, slave owners and military generals to a place of honour dotting the American landscape. They are not remembrances of fallen soldiers, most of whom did not own slaves and were poor, but tributes to the powerful who launched wars and military campaigns of conquest to maintain their ill gotten privilege from coerced labour. They are not a celebration of ethnic heritage, but painful symbols and daily reminders of the brutal oppression people of colour have endured and continue to face under a tenacious, violent and persistent societal racism.
Removing statues from parks or university plazas is not burying history, not by a long shot. It is in fact correcting an egregious and gross misrepresentation of it. The best these emblems of supremacy deserve is placement in museums of tolerance or history where everyone can discuss and critique their impact on society today. As for Mount Rushmore, returning the entire mountain to its rightful owners and letting them decide can be the only just solution.
Kenn Orphan 2017