Times Are Changing As Tolerance Weakens For Confederate Monuments

Jun 15, 2020
Originally published on June 15, 2020 10:12 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

How should we, in this country, remember people who fought for the evil institution of slavery? Monuments to them are coming down by decree and by force. In Richmond, Va., people pulled down a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Over the weekend in Kentucky, where police killed Breonna Taylor, crews removed Davis from his pedestal in the state Capitol. The governor there called it a step forward. Of course, other statues still stand. Julian Hayter is with me now. He's a historian at the University of Richmond. Good morning, sir.

JULIAN HAYTER: Morning.

KING: You're a historian. And I wonder, when we're looking back in 100 years, what is this moment about? Are we demanding a more complete version of history? Are we, as some have argued, erasing our history?

HAYTER: Right. I think, you know, the South may have lost the Civil War, but in many ways, it won the civil piece. And part of that victory was the reclamation of public space in the name of the lost cause, this idea that the Confederacy was a noble cause, that African Americans were happy slaves and unprepared for freedom, that Confederate leadership were heroes. And now I think with the emergence of white supremacy in the 21st century, people have had enough, the kind of shelf life of these ideas.

KING: I was watching an interview that you did in 2018 with "60 Minutes." And you said the statues should stay where they are with a footnote of epic proportions. Have you changed your mind at all on that?

HAYTER: I think, ultimately, what it comes down to is the lost cause and Confederate iconography tells a story, even when monuments stand without context. And if we tear those monuments down and we do not try to do battle with these ideas, I think it's a wasted opportunity. In some ways, I think we need to deal with the story of the lost cause by creating a new cause. So if they move these monuments from Monument Avenue and put them in a museum, I think they need context to begin to tell the story of what Southerners intended when they built these statues in the first place. And most of them were built in the 20th century.

So, you know, the political winds seem to be blowing in a manner that essentially wants those monuments taken off Monument Avenue. I'm not going to stand in people's way. That's for sure. But I will say that if we tear them down and we don't try to do our due diligence in dealing with the perpetuation of African American serfdom that characterized the 20th century that these monuments seem to entrench, it is a lost opportunity.

KING: OK, so in your ideal world, if the monuments, if the statues stay where they are, your footnote of epic proportions, tell me what that physically looks like.

HAYTER: So I call it historical jiujitsu where you essentially use the scale and grandeur of those monuments against themselves, right? You could have a glass placard - a big one, not a small one - and when you look through that glass placard, etched into that placard would be a story that tells you not only what those people intended when they built those monuments but delineates in many ways all the historical fallacies that were inherent to the lost cause. And these placards could, essentially, try to deal with the mythology because many Americans still believe in lost cause talking points, one of which is that the Civil War was about states' rights and not slavery. And I think the only way that you can engage with people who still believe in these mythologies is with recourse to historical material.

KING: You've obviously thought about this a lot. But can I just offer a quick rebuttal. I go to museums a lot. And I find myself looking at the big statues, looking at the sculptures, looking at the art. And I don't always read the plaque. How do you make sure that people - you want to give them context - how do you make sure that people are engaging with the context that's there, they're reading the information in front of them?

HAYTER: I don't think it would - you know, there's a lot of artistic latitude here. There's an infinite amount of space. And I think part of the reason people don't read the plaques is the manner in which the plaques are placed.

KING: OK.

HAYTER: You have to do something that situates a plaque or a placard so they cannot be ignored - right? - so when you are looking at one of these monuments, you are looking directly through something that tells you a story.

KING: Let me ask you, lastly, these monuments have withstood debate for years. And yet, there's a whole list that have come down since George Floyd was killed. What is different now?

HAYTER: I think, ultimately, what happened, even before the killing up in Minneapolis, is that the General Assembly turned toward the Democratic Party. And they gave people in Richmond local control over what to do with those monuments. But I also think that there's just - whenever there are issues of social unrest, the monuments are always in the proverbial crosshairs.

KING: OK. Julian Hayter, historian at the University of Richmond, thank you.

HAYTER: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.