Keep history where it belongs


Suppose you were strolling through Forest Park and came across a flattering statue of Adolf Hitler. Or Fidel Castro. Or Osama bin Laden. Of course, nations don’t generally bestow statuary upon enemies — unless those enemies happen to be Confederate leaders in the Civil War.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s call to remove a statue in the state capital, Richmond, of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee should be only the beginning. These monuments to slavery and treason don’t belong in positions of honor in public spaces.

For 130 years, the 60-foot-tall monument, topped with the bronze statue of Lee on horseback, has towered over downtown Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy and now a majority-black city. For modern African American citizens to have to walk in the shadow of the man who led the crusade to preserve slavery is a daily slap in the face — indeed, to any American supportive of racial justice amid recent reminders of how elusive it still is.

Northam’s move followed protests that have swept Virginia, as in Missouri and around the nation, over the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police. Northam’s announcement noted the “false version of history” that “pretends the Civil War was about ‘state rights’ and not the evils of slavery.”

It’s not only the history of the Civil War that’s too often falsified but also the history of the statues, Confederate flags and other Civil War symbolism. While the 1890 Lee statue is an exception, much of that symbolism around America arose in the early- to mid-20th century, when the war itself was a distant memory — but Jim Crow oppression of black citizens was in full swing. Those symbols were looming reminders to African Americans of where they stood, even generations after Emancipation.

St. Louis knows something about this. Three years ago, a 32-foot-tall, 40-ton monument that had stood in Forest Park since 1914, idealizing a Confederate soldier going off to war, became the center of controversy in light of modern racial strife. Mayor Lyda Krewson ultimately had the monument dismantled and taken away by the Missouri Civil War Museum in Jefferson Barracks, with the agreement that any future display of it would be in a museum or other appropriate setting.

A federal judge this week temporarily halted the removal of the Lee statue to consider a lawsuit claiming Virginia is contractually obligated to “affectionately protect” it in perpetuity. That promise, made at the dawn of the Jim Crow era, should hold no weight today when even the U.S. military is, at last, considering removing the names of Confederate leaders from its bases.

This isn’t, as some wrongly claim, an attempt to purge the Confederacy from history, but to keep that history where it belongs: in history books and museums, not to be celebrated in the public square.

— The St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Online: https://www.stltoday.com/