Dear Decaurish – Confederate monument should stay, but other monuments needed

Posted by Decaturish.com May 26, 2017

The monument in downtown Decatur. Photo provided to Decaturish

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Dear Decaturish,

I am writing today in reply to the editorial published on May 25 entitled “Confederate ‘lost cause’ monument in Decatur should be removed.” In reply to the author, I strongly support putting up additional monuments to honor the victims of white supremacy in the United States, as well as additional signage to help contextualize the obelisk and the likely intentions of those who raised it.

I do not, however, support removing the obelisk. As a historical artifact, the obelisk provides a physical link to the past and the values and perspectives of the past, and while many, if not all, aspects of this past are abhorrent today, keeping the monument in place, and engaging and critiquing its message, is more useful, I feel, than simply removing it. As the Atlanta History Center notes in their guide to contextualizing historical monuments (mentioned again below), Confederate monuments can “be transformed, through contextualization, into artifacts of interpretation that explore Civil War memory and the Jim Crow South.” I agree with this sentiment, and reckon that the Confederate memorial obelisk would be far more valuable as an interpretive artifact on the Square than as castoff rubbish in some anonymous trash pile.

Because if Decatur really intends to expunge white supremacy from public spaces, it’s got a way to go with other relics that are less noticeable than the obelisk but no less troubling. The small cannon on the south-east edge of the Old Courthouse is from the “Indian Wars,” but makes no mention of the horrors, such as the Trail of Tears, which that “war” entailed. The statue of Thomas Jefferson on the north face of the Old Courthouse (which was only put up recently) honors a man who unironically wrote that “all men are created equal” while claiming ownership over 200 human beings. And while Jefferson personally opposed slavery (while continuing to practice it), he also believed that blacks were inherently inferior to whites and were not intelligent enough to be citizens of the United States.

As for the obelisk being erected intentionally as a tool for keeping blacks in their place, again, I think one would be hard pressed to find any historical monument raised by America’s white population that doesn’t have some inherent notion of white supremacy or that doesn’t obfuscate historical reality. Consider, for instance, the Emancipation Monument in Washington, DC. Although paid for entirely from donations by freed slaves, the white artists elected to design a monument in which a benevolent and paternalistic Abraham Lincoln beckons a slave, who huddles obsequious and timid at Lincoln’s feet, to freedom. Frederick Douglas, who spoke at the dedication of the monument, later lamented the cringing attitude assumed by the enslaved figure, who is shown meekly accepting his freedom from a generous white man.

Rather than leave the Square bereft of historical monuments that predate the late 1990s, I believe that we would be better off situating these monuments in their historical context, through interpretative markers that make clear, in the case of theConfederate memorial obelisk, that the “institutions” those Dekalb citizens were defending included slavery, and that the “men, women, and children of Dekalb” who raised the monument did so to commemorate and perpetuate white supremacy. It just so happens that the Atlanta History Center has developed templates and guides for achieving just such a contextualization which could be a starting point for the city or the county as this issue moves forward (These resources may be found at this site:http://www.atlantahistorycenter.com/research/confederate-monuments)

And with the money that would have been spent moving the obelisk, let’s commission artists (preferably of color) to design and execute new public works that tell the whole story. We can’t change the past or the monuments it left behind, but we can challenge them, and put up our own.

– John Cobb

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