Although the Civil War ended over 150 years ago, the police killing of George Floyd not only caused widespread protests but also reignited efforts to remove the Confederate statues viewed as symbols of slavery and racism. A decision to tear down the bronze statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, VA, was halted by a court challenge and has been extended indefinitely. As protestors remove statues and memorials to Confederate leaders and other oppressors, like Christopher Columbus, many oppose the idea believing that these acts will erase history. The concept that the monuments continue the glorification of white supremacy and commemorate a failed government drives the removal of these statues. Vice President Mike Pence made this exact argument in 2017 to explain why he opposed removing states of Confederate figures. However, most historians reject the argument that eliminating statues remove history.
Historians gain knowledge from the past from archives, documents, and objects that are preserved in libraries or museums. The records are scoured to produce academic books, peer-viewed articles for experts, and through podcasts and blogs for the public. The information historians learn taught to students, whose questions cause historians to return to archives and revise what they know. Nowhere in this process are these statues required. Removing statues and monuments and renaming streets and squares has resulted from remembering the past, thinking through history, asking new questions, and searching for new stories to share. Removing Confederate statues is not about forgetting history; it is a call to examine history. Taking down these statues reflects change; it is a way to turn away from those people on the pedestals and what they represent.
The first widespread surge of Confederate statues occurred during the Jim Crow era when African Americans were trying to assert their political authority and demanded expansion of citizenship rights. As the US went through more significant legislative changes during the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of new Confederate statues and monuments were built. The rise of these monuments can be viewed as a united effort by white supremacists to challenge black people’s progress.
America has been through a lot, and nothing of its history should ever be forgotten. The death of George Floyd rekindled the efforts to remove Confederate statues that began in 2017. Keeping the statues is believed to be an effort by white supremacists to continue the glorification of the Confederate States. Historians are opposed to the idea that removing the statues will erase American history. Instead, historians often resort to archived history, documents, and other objects in museums to continue teaching history. Removing the statues is not about forgetting America’s past, but rather about reexamining history and creating change.
But does removing the statues actually change anything? Racism isn’t something that is spurred on by statues existing in public places. Rather, racism starts at home; it’s a learned behavior. If we really want to improve eliminate racism, we’re going to need to teach the future generations to look past the color of someone’s skin and into the content of their character.