News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Confederate Monuments Debate Suggests Unfinished Business With The Past

Wikimedia Commons
A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was recently removed from a park in Dallas formerly named in his honor.

As Dallas considers changes to monuments, streets and schools named for Confederate leaders, the city of Austin has joined a growing movement to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People Day. TCU History professor Jodi Campbell finds the debates constructive, but thinks it may be more valuable to look at the questions behind them.

It’s surprising how intense the debate can become over historical monuments, when we ordinarily don’t pay much attention to them.

This is in part because, like most monuments, they’re not controversial. We’re often content to accept monuments as representing elements of our past.  No one would argue for tearing down Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles, even though it’s a monument to absolute monarchy; admiring the Aztec temples of Mexico City doesn’t mean approving of human sacrifice.

Great historical accomplishment always comes at a cost to someone. Until we can acknowledge both the accomplishment and the suffering that paid for it, we won't agree on what our monuments stand for.

If there were no systemic inequality in our society, no racial tension, or no differences in how we tell the history of slavery and the Civil War, people probably wouldn’t mind the statues of Confederate leaders.  They wouldn’t be perceived as a threat, because they would be viewed as part of our past. The fact that we so sharply disagree about what they mean, means that we have unfinished business with the past.

Americans are not the only ones to face these questions. Germany took a more decisive approach to its public presentation of history, banning all Nazi symbols and statues immediately following the war – even though into the 1950s, a full third of the German population thought the Nuremberg war crime trials had been “unfair.” Removing symbols doesn’t immediately change people’s minds.

Another option is to silence the past. In Spain, the transition to democracy in the 1970s after decades of authoritarian dictatorship was only accomplished by what Spaniards call the “pact of silence,” the agreement to smooth over the conflicts, not to discuss the wrongs of the past, not to change any monuments.  It worked, for a time.  But the silence didn’t make the past go away. And now the same debates are emerging: what do we do with the Franco statues?  Much of the current conflict about the independence of Catalonia has to do with different interpretations of the Franco era: some take pride in its legacy of unity, while others resent Franco’s suppression of Catalan culture and language. Those debates won’t be resolved until Spaniards feel like Franco’s legacy can rest in the past rather in the present. 

Back to our history. We do need to acknowledge the Civil War happened.  We do need to recognize Robert E. Lee was a distinguished military commander. We do need to acknowledge slavery and the Jim Crow era have cast a long shadow of repression and inequality over our present. Until this debate about Civil War statues came up, most people didn’t realize that the majority of statues of Confederate leaders were erected fifty years after the end of the war, representing the segregationist goals of the Jim Crow period at least as much as the heroism of Southern generals.

History itself doesn’t change, but the way we tell it always responds to what we’re interested in, what we want to say about ourselves, at any given moment.  Conflict over our public representations of history means we don’t agree on that story; it means we don’t collectively agree on who we are.  If facing our statues means working our way towards a complete and honest account of our past, it’s worth the debate.

Jodi Campbell is a Professor of History at Texas Christian University.