Look around. The statues are falling.
Not on their own accord, of course. Statues of Confederate military figures are being toppled by protesters outraged by racial injustice and the death of George Floyd, while some states and cities are removing the monuments on their own.
In recent days, the statue of Confederate Gen. Albert Pike was destroyed by demonstrators in Washington, D.C. and protesters in Richmond, Virginia, knocked down a statue of Confederacy President Jefferson Davis. The state of Kentucky announced it would remove its own statue of Davis from the Capitol and the city of Houston decided to remove all Confederate statues from its parks. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper had two monuments removed from the State Capitol in the name of public safety. Similar scenes are playing out across America.
On one side, we have Americans outraged that their communities would still honor those who fought to preserve slavery during the Civil War. While supporters of the Confederate monuments often talk of heritage and history. President Trump has backed them with a promised executive order threatening federal prosecution for anyone who topples such a statue.
We must understand the significance of statues
Often missing from the public debate, though, is determining what these statues actually convey. Statues, like paintings and illustrations, are art, protected under the First Amendment because they express ideas.
We all know the messages conveyed by the Statue of Liberty, Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall and Lincoln Memorial. So, what messages do these celebrations of the Confederate Army convey? It depends in part on when they were built.
Construction of the first Confederate memorial began in 1866, one year after the Civil War ended. The message would have been pretty clear, mourning the loss of fathers, sons and brothers in the Civil War.
But what do we make of the boom in Confederate monuments 25 to 35 years later, when legislatures throughout the South passed Jim Crow laws to limit the rights of Black Americans? Or, the spike in Confederate statues during the height of the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s?
These weren’t cyclical flowerings of nostalgia for the Confederacy. These were endorsements of a time and culture in which Blacks were enslaved.
In the Southern Poverty Law Center’s view, “ the argument that the Confederate flag and other displays represent ‘heritage, not hate’ ignores the near-universal heritage of African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved by the millions in the South. It trivializes their pain, their history and their concerns about racism — whether it’s the racism of the past or that of today.”
A change in thought should also be a change in commemoration
Too often we view statues as permanent, perhaps influenced by the size and weight of these commemorative objects. They stay, sometimes due to inertia, long after the initial decision to erect them.
Monuments around the world come down when regimes change. You may recall the toppling of Saddam Hussein statutes in Iraq in 2003. Why shouldn’t statues come down when a society’s values change?
You might even say that removing monuments like these are part of a great American tradition.
Why do protesters want these Confederate statues taken down? For one, they honor men who went to war against the United States. They also represent subjugation of an entire people and the failure to protect the rights of all.
In 1776, days after America declared its independence from what it saw as an oppressive regime, the rebels of New York quickly toppled the statue of King George III.
At war with the United States? Check.
Subjugating a population? Yes.
Failing to recognize God-given rights? Absolutely.
Those who toppled the king’s statue had their own message. The world had changed forever.
That said, the real test of America’s values today is whether we can muster the political will to remove these offensive statutes through a peaceful process. Real change doesn’t come from the brute force of knocking down a statue. There are a lot of people who should be heard from before a community — and not a handful of protestors — decides that George Washington or Ulysses S. Grant aren’t worthy of our respect because they owned slaves.
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When legislators and government bodies refuse to remove monuments to rebel soldiers, they pretend it's an object or decoration that simply reflects the past. They're not acknowledging that these were in fact billboards for racism in the 20th century.
By keeping those monuments up in 2020 despite the pain it clearly causes many Americans, those in power are reinforcing the inherent messages of those statues. Let’s not kid ourselves about what was being said.
Ken Paulson is the director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and a former editor of USA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter: @kenpaulson1
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pulling down confederate statues is a role for communities, not mobs