Statues are often among the first casualties of regime change. In July 1776, a mob of patriots attacked a statue of King George III that stood in Lower Manhattan, hacking it up to melt into bullets for the Continental Army.
In April 2003, television networks around the world showed joyous Baghdad citizens toppling a gigantic bronze Saddam Hussein, providing an iconic image of the Iraqi dictator’s fall. (The U.S. military had delivered sledgehammers, rope, a large crane, manpower, the press pool and a great deal of encouragement — a story that didn’t fully come to light until many years later.)
Sometimes the regime change takes a little longer. That’s how we should look at images of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson being lifted through the night sky in Baltimore; of protesters stomping on a Confederate soldier statue in Durham, North Carolina; and of "alt-right" battalions storming Charlottesville to rescue a doomed Lee memorial. It should also shape how we read President Donald Trump’s defiant response to the violence in Charlottesville.
Just like in 1776 and 2003, the regime that’s toppling right now—or at least teetering—is the same one that built the monuments. But that regime isn’t the Confederate States of America, which was already toppled pretty conclusively back at Appomattox in 1865. The statues—like countless others across the South—were erected not under the stars and bars of the Confederacy, but instead under the stars and stripes of the United States.
The current fight is only partly about the true meaning of the Civil War and the deeds or misdeeds of men in gray coats. Those statues went up for other reasons, and the argument today is about why we, as a nation—the reunited U.S.A.—put those monuments up in our public spaces in the first place. Most important now, it’s about why we have let them stay there for so long.