Memory  /  Survey

Empty Pedestals

What should be done with civic monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders?
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


Charles G. Summersell

Chair of Southern History

University of Alabama

In 1908, the town of Raymond, in Hinds County, Miss., held a ceremony to dedicate a monument to Confederate soldiers. Ex-Confederate Captain William T. Ratliff assured listeners that their monument was not about defeat, but instead courage and “principles that would endure forever to show what men and women would do for a cause they believed just and right.” The Nathan Bedford Forrest Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy officially unveiled the statue, with an estimated 1,500 in attendance.

This statue, like the thousands found throughout the South and beyond, had a clear message: to celebrate and promote the ideals of the Lost Cause. The triumphant narrative of Confederate valor and sacrifice was meant to bolster white supremacy and silence African-American voices as much as their agency, particularly in the context of the Jim Crow South.

This campaign of obfuscation has been remarkably successful, leaving many white Americans unwilling or disinterested in grappling with the war’s painful legacy. The removal of Confederate monuments—and the vigorous debate it has inspired—helps, I believe, to finally reach some sort of reckoning with that past in order to embrace a more pluralistic American society. 


Supervisory Historian, retired

Gettysburg National Military Park

We are all aware that the legacy of our Civil War and Reconstruction is complex, controversial, and for some, painful. I can understand the anger residents of New Orleans might feel about a monument in the heart of their city commemorating and celebrating an 1866 massacre of black citizens who were simply demonstrating for the right to vote. It was a constant reminder of a white supremacist society and I sympathize with the city’s decision to remove it.

Monument removal, however, becomes more problematic when we apply it to any monument or memorial associated with the Confederacy, as if by removing these symbols we can somehow repair the past and heal wounds. But does it? It seems more likely to heal one wound and open another. A better solution to tearing down Confederate monuments is the example of the Arthur Ashe monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond. Ashe’s monument reminds visitors and residents that Richmond’s history is complicated and more than just the memory of the Confederacy and its leaders. Rather than tear down monuments, build new ones, where appropriate, that tell the story of those who struggled bravely for freedom and equality.