A bronze statue of Robert E. Lee, encircled by a fence in Richmond, Virginia, has two things in common with the 1939 film “Gone With The Wind.”
Both are under fire in 2021. And both are old, both in physical age and in the expression of values that are no longer widely seen as appropriate.
From Confederate memorials to classical literature, old is not playing well in America today, as heightened sensitivity to racial injustice and sexual harassment roots out offenses and people call for their banishment or correction.
Old statues are being warehoused or destroyed; streets and schools named after old leaders renamed. Old movies, such as “Gone With The Wind” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” are under fire for cinematic depictions that don’t square with prevailing moral sensibilities. Old words, such as “plantation,” are newly taboo.
Even the classical literary tradition, derided in some circles as being “Eurocentric,” is being questioned in academia. Howard University, the only historically Black university with a classics department, recently announced it was cutting the department, a move that Harvard University scholar Cornel West called “a spiritual catastrophe.”
In many ways, it seems a dangerous time to be an old thing in America. Even antique furniture isn’t selling well.
Some people applaud the accelerating push to rid the nation of old symbols of racism, misogyny and hatred, even if, in doing so, a historic city loses a National Historic Landmark. Others, however, wonder if America is throwing away history in a country that, five years shy of its 250th anniversary, doesn’t have all that that much history to preserve.
‘A transformative year’
Three months before George Floyd died, a Virginia magazine described Richmond’s Monument Avenue as a distinguished tourist attraction that drew visitors from all over the world. The main attractions of the leafy boulevard, a National Historic Landmark, were five massive monuments to men deemed heroes of the Confederacy.
But a year after national outrage over Floyd’s death and renewed efforts to erase symbols of racism, only one of those monuments remains: the towering brass sculpture of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, erected in 1890, its granite pedestal now painted with profane graffiti.
That 12-ton, 61-foot statue could come down as early as next month, pending a ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court. Since Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, at least 167 Confederate symbols have been removed across the country, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Montgomery, Alabama, that tracks Confederate symbols and considers 2020 “a transformative year.”
The majority of these symbols are more than a half century old, sometimes much more so. Of 780 monuments identified by the center, 604 were dedicated or built before 1950. Some were erected soon after the war ended, but others came in two spikes: the first two decades of the 20th century, when Jim Crow laws began to proliferate, and in the 1950s and 1960s, due to a backlash against the civil rights movement and deregulation, the center’s report said.
Because of their timing, the monuments were meant to send a message of hostility to Blacks, which is why they are different from other physical reminders of slavery, such as slave cabins that still exist in the South, said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In fact, some groups work to preserve slave cabins, saying that they’re an important piece of history.
‘A light bulb went off’
The writer Catesby Leigh, co-founder of the National Civic Art Society and an art and architecture critic in Washington, D.C., is among those who have argued that America goes too far in destroying monuments that have both historical and artistic value.
Leigh maintains that the average American understands that the values of a Confederate general who surrendered are obsolete. Most Americans, he wrote for The Federalist, “can appreciate that such monuments retain artistic value apart from any ideological baggage they might carry simply because they are of higher quality than the memorials we are apt to produce today.”
In a longer essay for City Journal, Leigh decried “Richmond’s rage of the woke,” arguing that the city had allowed the destruction and dismantling of one of its most beautiful features, even though the monuments there had lost “ideological currency with the passage of time, as monuments often do.”
“The devotees of politically correct iconoclasm would have us believe that Confederate monuments have no significance or value independent of the Jim Crow regime, which began taking root in the late 1870s, and that to defend their preservation is to defend white supremacy. That may apply to a coterie of far-right misfits. But on the whole the indictment is bunk,” Leigh wrote.
“Monument Avenue was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997 for reasons having everything to do with culture and history and nothing to do with advocacy of white supremacy.”
But people who argue for eradicating troublesome symbols of the past point to Dylann Roof, the Confederate-flag waving white supremacist who killed nine Blacks at a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015. For Roof, the “Lost Cause” wasn’t really lost, just not yet achieved.
“If we’re serious about continuing this reckoning, this racial reckoning that we began post the very public lynching of George Floyd, it requires us to look at the symbols and foundation of white supremacy that exist,” said Brooks, with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
It’s important to remember, Brooks said, that after Floyd died, Americans spontaneously gathered at Confederate monuments to express grief and rage. “It was like a light bulb went off, that these are the symbols that serve as the foundation of white supremacy,” she said, noting that activism spread to include an “Indigenous Peoples Day of Rage” and even statue toppling and defacement in other countries.
The purging of symbols is necessary for the country as it attempts to heal from old and current injustice, she said. “You can’t hold hold onto the foundation of white supremacy and then move past it.”
But Brooks said that total destruction of these symbols wasn’t necessary, just their removal from public spaces. “The Southern Poverty Law Center believes that these monuments should be moved to private space, like a museum, where it can be discussed in historical context. We have no issues with them going to cemeteries. If it really is about honoring the war dead, then put them in a Civil War cemetery.”
History or memory?
Matthew Mason, a history professor at Brigham Young University, has taken public school teachers on a tour of Richmond’s Monument Avenue through Utah’s Driven 2 Teach program, which takes teachers to places of historical significance across the United States. But Mason says the monuments there are a good example of what he teaches his BYU students: that there’s a significant difference between history and memory.
A Civil War battlefield is history; a monument erected 25 years after the war ended is a memory, he said. Similarly, the film “Gone With The Wind,” released in 1939, “tells you a lot more about what people thought in the 1930s than it tells you about the Civil War.”
That film, long considered a classic, was briefly threatened with cancellation in the wake of Floyd’s death in May 2020. HBO Max removed it from its streaming platform in June 2020 after criticism that it glorified the antebellum South. It was later restored with commentary by film scholar Jacqueline Stewart who says, “The film’s treatment of this world through a lens of nostalgia denies the horrors of slavery, as well as its legacies of racial inequality.”
Mason, who teaches a class on the Civil War and is a member of Historians Against Slavery, noted that only a few Confederate statues came down after the Roof’s massacre at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Charleston, despite the clear connection to the Confederate flag, but that momentum swelled after Floyd’s death, even though “it’s not like Derek Chauvin was flying the Confederate flag while he was murdering George Floyd.”
“It’s fascinating that we use history to tell people how we feel, but history and memory work differently,” he said, adding that a former professor used to tell him, “History tends to be cool, while memory is always hot.”
Mason said one problem with Confederate statues, and Monument Avenue in particular, is that they weren’t erected to teach history, but to honor and celebrate the people depicted and their actions, which, to many Americans, were treasonous. “That Robert E. Lee statue is so big it needs its own traffic circle,” Mason said. “That’s the ultimate place of public honor.”
Conversely, he said, “That history is safely secured in books lining my shelves. There’s not an archive fire in the world that would wipe out the history of the American Civil War.” The debate about Confederate statues, he said, really comes down to a debate of what Americans value today, not about what happened in the past, he said. “Tear them all down, as a statement of what we believe right now.”
A ‘monumental purpose’?
America’s “tear them all down” moment, of course, is not unique to the time, nor the country, but rather the latest installment of iconoclasm, the destruction of physical objects that reflect a passing era or value set. But there is disparity in how the purging is perceived.
Much of the world was shocked when the Islamic State destroyed ancient art at the Mosul Museum in Iraq and Syria, and decried the loss of “humanity’s cultural heritage.” Yet Americans and Iraqis cheered when Saddam Hussein’s statue was famously toppled in 2003 (by a man who later said he wished the late ruler was back).
Writing for The Washington Post, art critic Sebastian Smee noted that, during the Protestant Reformation, one of the early adapters of iconoclasm, King Edward VI, ordered the destruction of “all monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition; so that there remain no memory of the same.”
That was easier to do in the 16th century, before the internet remembered everything.
The fate of the Robert E. Lee monument, now in the hands of Virginia’s Supreme Court, may come down to another piece of history — a 134-year-old deed conveying the land that the statue rests on. In other words, a real estate dispute.
Descendants of the family that donated the land are challenging the governor’s order to remove the statue, saying that the land was given specifically for one purpose and that the commonwealth had agreed to “hold said statue and pedestal and circle of ground perpetually sacred to the Monumental purpose to which they have been devoted and that she will faithfully guard it and affectionately protect it.”
Mason considers monuments like Lee’s “low-hanging fruit,” but says the more difficult issues American faces are over more complicated figures such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, long revered men who have lost luster because they owned slaves.
Earlier this year, a school board in San Francisco voted to rename six schools, including ones named after Washington, Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. (Washington and Jefferson, because they owned slaves; Lincoln, because of his reported mistreatment of Native Americans.)
In response, historian Harold Holzer, a scholar on Lincoln and director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, told The Associated Press that he feared the country is flirting with “a danger of excess” in its crusade to obliterate troublesome symbols of its past.
“I think there’s a danger in applying 21st century moral standards to historical figures of one or two centuries ago,” he said. “We expect everyone to be perfect. We expect everyone to be enlightened. But an enlightened person of 1865 is not the same as an enlightened person of 2021.”
Similarly, Mason noted that other countries struggle with similar problems. Winston Churchill, for example, has been called a white supremacist and once called Indians “a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
“But he also has a kind of nice thing on his resume,” helping to defeat Nazism, Mason said.
Going after people with “complicated histories” is, for now, “the preserve of the extreme left,” Mason said. “Most Americans agree that there’s a difference between Nathan Bedford Forrest and George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. They have complicated resumes, unlike Robert E. Lee, whose resume is pretty simple. We only remember him for one thing.”