Monuments and Memorials: The Legacy of White Supremacy and the Inciting Incident in Charlottesville
|Author: David B. Allison author of Controversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders (2018).|
Since the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, communities around the United States have infused their discussions about what to do with public monuments with new urgency. Many of these statues represent painful history — in the case of statues to leaders of the Confederacy, it is a history that brings to the foreground white supremacy and the legacy of slavery in America. What you will find here is a brief overview of the Charlottesville incident as the touchstone that began the journey to George Floyd’s killing and the resulting push to remove, deface, and destroy monuments in America.
Tension ran thick through the air in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017. The night before, young men and women with tiki torches walked through the University of Virginia’s campus yelling Nazi slogans and chanting, “Blood and soil, we’ll take our streets back.” Anti-fascist (Antifa) and Black Lives Matter protesters stood in the streets ready to face that same group of neo-fascists as they assembled to protest the removal of a statue—a silent carved stone whose meanings had been contested nearly from the day it was constructed and whose unseeing visage would loom over three deaths that hot day in August.
In the early afternoon of August 12th, after riot police had dispersed some of the crowds and the violent clashes of the morning had begun to wane, counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed after being run over by a car driven by a white supremacist from Ohio. Later that afternoon, two Virginia state troopers were killed in a helicopter crash while observing the crisis from above. Some have said that the Civil War is still being fought in the South. On this day, the fight moved out of the ideological and rhetorical and became deadly once again.
Unveiled by Robert E. Lee’s 3-year-old great-granddaughter in 1924, the dedication of the Lee monument in Charlottesville was preceded by numerous instances of Ku Klux Klan activities meant to instill terror on the Black neighborhoods in town. Similarly, Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia was created to reinforce segregated housing and to create a visual representation of the reestablishment of white dominance in the city.
In 2017, Jason Kessler, a resident of Charlottesville and an “alternative right” blogger, invoked the white supremacist origins of the Lee monument. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he said, “Lincoln was a traitor. Our entire country would be better off if the South had won the Civil War. Now the same carpetbagging cowards that call us racist are trying to tear down our monuments.” Kessler continued his tirade by invoking free speech and encouraging his fellow alt-right activists to join him in Charlottesville.
Hundreds of neo-fascists, Southern nationalists and white supremacists heeded Kessler’s call and descended upon Charlottesville. While Kessler’s reason for assembling these marchers might have been obscured by the long litany of grievances and hatreds espoused by the multifarious hate groups who answered his call to action, the touchstone issue for Kessler was a proposal initiated by Charlottesville’s Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy—the lone black representative on the city council—to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from the formerly-named Lee Park.
In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) just one day after the deaths in Charlottesville, Bellamy reflected on what ignited hate and inflamed the alt-right. Asked by the interviewer if he thought that the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee from the center of town precipitated the events of August 12, Bellamy said, “I don’t think it’s about the statue. This is about white supremacy. And this is about the notion of different individuals of the majority race. And they believe that they are superior to anyone who is not of the, quote, unquote, ‘white pure race.’ They want to try and invoke fear.”
To Bellamy, the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee was just an excuse for racists to make themselves visible and to spread fear. It became a rallying cry that emboldened white supremacists to display their deep-set pride in their racial identity. The threat to remove Confederate statues encouraged white nationalists to stridently vocalize and violently act upon their belief that white people have an unassailable right to control the United States, including shaping the narratives of its past. Lee’s Charlottesville statue was a mere vessel for the rage of racist ideologues who did not seek to prevent the destruction of history, but rather to use history to reaffirm their faith in the supremacy of the vision of a white America and to distort it in service of their intolerance and bigotry.
Some communities — New Orleans being the most notable example — had already moved decisively to remove these monuments when the protests and counter-protests around Confederate statues in Charlottesville came to its tragic head. Other cities opened these conversations anew, partly spurred by a desire to short-circuit a reenactment of what happened in Virginia. Two prominent examples include Lexington, Kentucky and Memphis, Tennessee. In late 2017, Memphis removed statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and, later, the head of the Ku Klux Klan, and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. In retaliation for these actions, the Republican-held Tennessee legislature withheld funding from Memphis for their bicentennial celebration.
Touched off by protests against the killing of George Floyd, statues in communities throughout the United States have been removed, vandalized, or made into counter-memorials. The speed of the actions against objectionable monuments is breathtaking. Also noteworthy is how many politicians and pundits quickly (and mostly ignorantly) come to the defense of these monuments. Public historians must be ready to confidently correct misperceptions about the origins and purpose of objectionable monuments. Helping leaders and community members understand the context of the construction of these monuments and then providing options for what might be done with them is a role we must embrace.
When proponents of leaving statues in situ argue that those who remove or re-contextualize statues are “destroying history,” a response can be, “whose history are we ‘destroying’ and what does that history represent?” Moreover, opening dialogue with communities that is informed by the historical context of the monument-building years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the Lost Cause narrative that drove the construction of most Confederate statues can lead to novel new solutions that acknowledge that removing and defacing monuments represents, in large part, an overflow of long-simmering anger rooted in centuries of white supremacy and oppression.
David B. Allison is the author of Controversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders (2018).