by James A. Bacon
The movement to expunge Confederate statues from the public realm has reached a tipping point. It started with the proposition that many people, Blacks especially, found sculptures honoring the defenders of a slave nation to be offensive, regardless of the meaning the memorials conveyed to others. But the rhetoric has transmogrified from a cry to respect the sensitivities of Blacks into a vengeful purging of Southern White heritage.
Hundreds of statues and memorials were erected across the South in gratitude to the sacrifices of the Civil War generation and in a spirit of national reconciliation. Statues were not a “Southern” thing. Visit Gettysburg to see the innumerable statues and memorials to Northern generals, military units and soldiers. The veterans of the Civil War could forgive and forget, but for modern-day iconoclasts, history has no statute of limitations. There is is no forgiveness. Indeed, the movement now seems animated by a desire to humiliate.
The vengeful spirit can be seen at Virginia colleges and universities in the systematic expungement of names and memorials of any figure with any connection with the Confederacy — even if someone was conscripted into the Confederate army — regardless of his contributions to the institution or to broader society.
It can be seen in the decision to hand over the City of Richmond’s defenestrated Confederate statues not to the Civil War Museum, the Virginia Historical Society or any of the two dozen other museums, preservation groups, and cultural organizations that asked for them, but to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. Far from treating the statues respectfully, museum leaders have agreed to lend four to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where they will be displayed this November along with contemporary art commissioned to “reconsider” the Confederate tributes in the context of Black history.
One can get a sense of how the L.A. exhibit will treat the statues by looking to the Valentine Richmond History Center, where the statue of Jefferson Davis (admittedly, an unsympathetic character) is displayed in its toppled, mutilated, and spray-painted form.
But nowhere can the spirit of vengeance be seen more clearly than in Charlottesville, where the City gave a statue of Robert E. Lee to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, which then “disassembled” it. The museum proposes to melt down the pieces and turn them into a new piece of art — undoubtedly one that will be heavily freighted with politically “progressive” symbolism.
That transfer is being disputed in the courts, and the outcome is in doubt, but the message comes through loud and clear: We have the statue now, you can’t have it, and we’re going to stick it to you.
Leftists and progressives have created a narrative that the statues were erected in support of the Lost Cause mythology that upheld White supremacy during the Jim Crow era. Some memorials undoubtedly were put into place for that very reason, and I can understand why it might be justifiable to remove those particular pieces. But not all were. Leftists are creating their own mythology.
The truth is that Southern communities raised many statues to honor the heroism and sacrifices of the men and women who endured the searing conflict of total war. Look at the plaques. Read the testimonials. The memorials weren’t honoring slavery. They weren’t honoring Jim Crow laws. Many were tributes of love and appreciation. The White Southerners who erected them and those who seek to preserve them impart an entirely different meaning than leftists do. We seek to preserve the memorials because they honor the virtues of courage, integrity, martial valor, and shared sacrifice.
Preservationists understand that times change and values change. They acknowledge that there are competing perspectives about the meaning of the statues. And when the statues came down, some of us thought, well, it’s a shame, but maybe such controversial symbols were inappropriate for public places. Maybe it’s better to put them in museums, battlefields or cemeteries. Hopefully, we can just move past this.
But for the Left, there is no moving past it. In cities like Richmond and Charlottesville where they control the municipal machinery, militants aren’t interested in reconciliation. They are carrying out a cultural cleansing and are bent upon inflicting humiliation. And the struggle won’t end until the humiliation is complete.