History Matters: Debates About Monuments Reflect Current DivisionsHistorians in the News
tags: memorials, parks, monuments, public history, public space, local government
When Mississippi opened the first state-sponsored civil rights museum in the country four years ago, The New York Times praised it as an institution that “refuses to sugarcoat history.” Now historians are worried that state legislators may be bent on doing just that.
The museum is run by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which is overseen by an independent board. A new bill would change that, putting the governor and lieutenant governor in charge of appointing the board. It’s already passed the state Senate and is moving through the House.
Sponsors say they’re only putting Archives and History in line with other commissions led by gubernatorial appointees. Critics complain that they’re really trying to politicize the past. “Who do you think Ross Barnett would have appointed to the Department of Archives and History?” asked state Sen. Hob Bryan, referring to the state’s segregationist governor of the early 1960s.
History, like everything else, has become polarized. The growing debate over monuments reflects the broader political clash between conservatives and progressives about what this country’s core values are and what we should hold dear. Conservative historians tend to extol the nation’s virtues — their sense of its greatness and exceptionalism – while some historians on the left have concentrated on pointing out not just flaws but sins such as slavery.
Monuments have become symbolic flashpoints of the larger debate about race. The 2017 “Unite the Right” hate rally in Charlottesville, Va., was inspired by the city planning to remove its Confederate monuments. Last year, statues much more broadly became a target of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“In many ways, these issues of monuments or school names really only matter when you can say history is happening, when there are particular crises,” says Robert Johnston, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Teaching of History Program. “Switches get flipped. George Floyd gets killed. People recognize that the past does leap into the present and we do think about these things.”
Last year, 94 Confederate monuments and dozens of other symbols were removed, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Polls show a slim majority of Americans now support the removal of Confederate monuments. Not everyone agrees, but it’s easy to make a case against public glorification of white supremacists who were traitors to the nation.
But now there’s controversy not only about the Confederacy but founders such as Washington and Jefferson, who were slaveholders, as well as figures such as Lincoln and Grant, who were central to the abolition of slavery. During last year’s racial justice protests, statues — even some honoring abolitionists in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and Madison, Wis. — were toppled or damaged.
“It’s an odd slippery slope that we’ve embarked upon,” says Phillip Magness, a historian at the American Institute for Economic Research, a free-market think tank. “They’ll go around and look for figures that have some mark against them in the past, which may be a secondary aspect of their career.”
Johnston says it’s healthy to have this public argument, which makes people think like historians — engaging with the evidence and questioning why figures of the past were significant and how they were flawed. Still, he worries that a wave of historical revisionism might wipe out anyone who has any kind of blemish.
“Although Lincoln was not the only author of the abolition of slavery, he had quite a bit to do with it,” says Kate Masur, a historian at Northwestern University. “He represented a very important segment of white Americans.”
Symbols matter. The fact that people are arguing about monuments and school names shows they’re concerned about history and what the nation or a particular community makes of it. They represent not only the individuals depicted but what we value about the past.
“Everything is in the mix, from monuments to pop culture, what gets taught in school and movies and musicals like ‘Hamilton,’” Masur says.