Confederate Monuments and Historical Interpretations

Jefferson Davis statue in New Orleans, one of three remaining confederate statues to be removed REUTERS/Ben Depp

The Confederate monuments being pulled down in New Orleans have generated lots of controversy. The only people against taking them down seem to be unreconstructed supporters of the Confederacy, who appear on the verge of violence – such as a man who showed up with an AK-47 and a glock.

In fact, the case for their removal is compelling. No one who cares about racial equality wants to walk in the literal shadow of Confederate war heroes. Nor do they want to see monuments to post-Civil War violence designed to shore up white supremacy. There is good reason to take down celebrations of the bad old days. The case is made more compelling because only one segment of the population had a say in putting them up in the first place.

Some years ago I was talking with a client in a rural North Carolina county who said she thought we would lose our lawsuit; the Confederate statute out front of the courthouse would reflect the justice inside the courthouse. It seems particularly inappropriate to send such signals to citizens that they are not welcome. Consider, along those lines, the Confederate monument in front of the Sussex County Courthouse in Virginia, which reads "The Principles for which they fought live eternally." The court sends a wrong message of exclusion to African American citizens who appear as litigants in civil cases, as defendants in criminal cases, and as witnesses. That does not look like the equal application of the law.

Yet, I think there is a strong case for keeping monuments in public spaces – away from courthouses. If we take down those monuments, we facilitate forgetting of the bad old days. This runs a serious risk of white-washing our history and making it easy to forget the era of slavery and that what followed the end of slavery (after a brief period of "Reconstruction") was about 100 years of segregation imposed by law and custom known as the "Jim Crow" period. About one third of African American children live in poverty (to 10% of white, non-Hispanic children). The eras of slavery and Jim Crow have more than a little to do with that extraordinary and tragic data. Once those monuments are removed, our nation can more easily move to blame African American culture – rather than the horror and brutality of stolen labor and segregation. For people will first see the monuments' removal as the final bookend of the era of Jim Crow, and they will then more easily forget that the South was once controlled by people who celebrated slavery and who celebrated white supremacy after slavery was over.

We should keep those monuments – and add counter-monuments and appropriate interpretations of them – so that everyone remembers that slavery was here in North America for more than two-hundred years and that it was followed by the Jim Crow era of segregation and violence. We should be working to eradicate the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but it is much easier for politicians looking for a cover for their failure to address entrenched social and economic inequality to remove monuments. When those monuments are all pulled down – in New Orleans and on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, and on town squares throughout the South – the dark years of racial crime will be more easily forgotten. The rewriting of history, in a way that justifies the present inequitable distribution of wealth, is accomplished.

-Al Brophy is the Judge John J. Parker Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. His most recent book is University, Court, and Slave: Proslavery Thought in Southern College and Courts and the Coming of Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2016).