Menu Close
A statue of a Confederate soldier nicknamed Silent Sam stands on the campus of the University of North Carolina. Jonathan Drake/Reuters

The Confederate statue debate: 3 essential reads

Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of archival stories related to the debate over what to do with Confederate statues.

The impetus for the “Unite the Right” rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12 was a proposal to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a city park.

In the wake of the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, protesters toppled a Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina, while the city of Baltimore swiftly removed four statues.

President Trump made his views clear in a series of Thursday morning tweets:

Our scholars explore all sides of the debate, with a case for removal, a case for preservation and a look to post-Soviet Russia for possible alternatives.

A tool of oppression

Penn State’s Joshua F.J. Inwood and Derek H. Alderman study the way memory and places interact with trauma. They think the original intention of most Confederate statues – and the context in which they were built in the years after the Civil War – make it tough to defend keeping them in place:

“white elites employed these statues to take advantage of the racial anxieties of poor whites and to remind civil rights-seeking black communities of who really mattered and belonged…in the city.”

While it certainly doesn’t solve problems of inequality that exist today, removing memorials that continue to “exact a painful toll on the sense of belonging and place of African-Americans” is, at very least, a step in the right direction.

A symbol of past crimes

University of North Carolina law professor Al Brophy notes that the debate isn’t new. For decades, cities and towns around the country have been grappling with what to do with Confederate memorials. Many have simply moved the statues from visible public squares to less prominent places, like cemeteries.

In recent years, however, some states have passed “Heritage Protection Acts” that prohibit the removal of Confederate monuments from public property – and even the renaming of public buildings.

While he’s no fan of the Confederacy, Brophy makes a case for preservation, arguing that

“we risk forgetting the connections of past racial crimes to current racial inequality.”

What did the Russians do?

Tufts University political scientist James Glaser looks to Russia for answers. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many Russians wondered what to do with all the symbols associated with the old order. It wouldn’t make sense to knock down buildings – like the seven skyscrapers Stalin constructed in Moscow – that were still in use.

Statues, however, served no practical purpose. Moving them from public spaces, Glaser writes, “was one of the first impulses the Russian people had after the fall of the Soviet Union.”

It’s important to note that the statues weren’t all destroyed. Instead, many were relocated to a sculpture garden.

“It’s our past and we embrace it,” one Moscow resident told Glaser, “We lived it. We can’t just wish it away.”

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 179,400 academics and researchers from 4,902 institutions.

Register now