America Letter: the debate around Confederate statues is far from over

Statues honouring the losing Confederate side are seen as an attempt to reclaim a lost and noble cause despite the south’s support for slavery

The statue of Robert E Lee which stood in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photograph: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The statue of Robert E Lee which stood in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photograph: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

 

Driving through some southern states of America on a recent road trip, a peculiar feature of the urban landscape became apparent.

In New Orleans a huge slab of concrete sits at the centre of Lee circle, one of the city’s best-known landmarks where two of its biggest thoroughfares meet. As the name suggests, it once was the site of a statue of civil war general Robert E Lee. In fact his monument stood at the site for 133 years, before it was removed in May 2017, and transferred to an undisclosed location, the fourth and final Confederate statue to be taken down by the city under the leadership of then mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Some 500 miles north up the Mississippi river in Memphis, a rectangular mound stands alone in the grounds of one of the city’s urban parks. The park formerly housed a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a local civil war hero who later came to prominence as founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Following the lead of New Orleans, the city removed the statue in late 2017.

This sight of empty pedestals is not, however, common to every southern city.

In Houston, Texas, a statue of Dick Dowling proudly stands aloft on Cambridge Street. Born in Tuam, Co Galway, in the 1830s, he emigrated to New Orleans and then Houston, and became a prominent Confederate commander during the war.

As well as his marble statue, two streets – Tuam Street and Dowling Street – were named in his honour by his adopted city. Controversially, a plaque to Dowling was erected in Tuam town hall in 1998.

Some 19 months after the Charlottesville demonstrations which saw a group of neo-Nazis converge on the Virginia city to protest at the proposed removal of a statue, the law surrounding the status of Confederate statues remains as unclear as ever.

Support for slavery

Often built in the reconstruction period many years after the end of the civil war, statues honouring the losing Confederate side in the war were widely seen as an attempt to reclaim the southern experience in the war as a lost and noble cause despite the south’s support for slavery. Today hundreds of monuments are scattered around mostly the southern states of America.

Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor, described the statues as a “lie” and a “distortion of the past”. The civil war was a “war to keep slavery”, he writes in his book In the Shadow of Statues. “Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity and history.”

Those who believe the statues should not be removed view them as a legitimate symbol of southern identity, or at the very least historical artefacts that should be viewed in the context of their time.

Once statues start to be removed where does the process stop, the argument goes, noting that some of the great figures of American history had links with slavery, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

This week the controversy over Confederate monuments took another turn when a Virginia court ruled that authorities in Charlottesville cannot remove the two statues at the centre of the August 2017 deadly riots. The court ruled that they were war monuments, and as such are protected by state law.  

The Virginia ruling is a symbolic victory for those opposed to the removal of the statues.

Virginia has the highest number of Confederate monuments in the country. In its capital, Richmond – the capital of the breakaway confederacy during the civil war – several statues line Monument Avenue, a five-mile thoroughfare in the city.

Surrender

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties’ Union) used the recent anniversary of the Confederate surrender to call for the statue of Lee to be removed, and the city’s mayor is in favour. However, this week’s ruling underscores the complex overlap between state and local law that is likely to prevent more cities from taking action.

Richmond has already been grappling with the legacy of racial oppression in recent months after pictures surfaced of governor Ralph Northam in blackface. Northam rode out the storm and remains in office, but the episode exposed the complex dynamics of race, history and identity that permeates Virginian politics.

While this week’s ruling is a victory of sorts for defenders of the statues, the debate is far from over. The case is likely to end up at the state supreme court.

In the meantime America is likely to battle with the divisions that are still present in the country more than 150 years after the end of the civil war.

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