On February 22, 1884, thousands of citizens as well as distinguished guests—senators, Supreme Court justices, French and German consuls—attended the unveiling of the monument of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans. Mayor William Behan, who served under Lee in the Confederate Army, proclaimed that the general’s “deeds are his monument, and they will survive and continue in remembrance long after this marble shall have crumbled into dust.”
This past December, at Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s urging, the city council voted 6-1 to have Lee taken down from his perch atop a sixty-foot-tall Doric column, and to also remove monuments to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General P. G. T. Beauregard, and the “Battle of Liberty Place,” an 1874 insurrection by a white supremacist group. The measure is part of a broader debate, prompted by swelling racial tension, over monuments to Confederate leaders and other white men who promoted racist policies, including John C. Calhoun at Yale, Cecil Rhodesat Oxford and the University of Cape Town, and Woodrow Wilson at Princeton.
In the battle over the legacy of these men, opposing sides have mined the historical record. In New Orleans, those who want Lee taken down say his memory could never be disentangled from the “long years of bondage for black people brought here against their will,” according to an editorial in the Times Picayune. This camp has highlighted Lee’s tenuous connection with New Orleans, his slave-owning, and his views on the institution of slavery (Lee once wrote of blacks, “The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race…”). Among those who oppose taking Lee down, which includes former Governor Bobby Jindal, some venerate Lee’s legacy while others simply want to preserve the city’s historical landscape.
Amid these recent clashes, though, essential questions have been neglected: What is, or should be, the purpose of public monuments? Should they reflect contemporary values, or should they remind us of our past, however painful it might be? By purging historical monuments in the name of contemporary values, we risk effacing the grievous errors that continue to inform the present. Yet, by preserving them, we also potentially legitimate the legacy of white supremacy. Perhaps there is a third way: one that allows us to preserve history, and in turn monuments, while also activating them in the fight against racial injustice. ...