Take the Statues Down. Replace them with any of These People.Roundup
tags: statues, Confederacy, public history
Sidney Blumenthal is the author of All the Powers of Earth 1856-1860, the third of his five-volume biography, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, and a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and to Hillary Clinton.
Sean Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton, is the author, most recently, of No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation's Founding.
States, cities and protesters have been busy pulling down Confederate monuments, but eliminating these bronze and stone tributes to a disgraced past is only part of the task. If the country is to achieve a national renewal, the more formidable and lasting challenge will be to set the past right. Parks, boulevards, courtyards and buildings across the country stand ready: Fill them with new plinths and pedestals to honor the heroes and decisive events of the fundamental American struggle for democracy and racial justice.
How does it happen, though? President Trump, who defends Confederate monuments and announced by tweet Friday “a very strong Executive Order protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues,” is unlikely to lead such a transformation. If Joe Biden is elected president, however, he might seize the opportunity and create a new national program — one that models itself on a Great Depression remedy, considering the country is again in the throes of economic catastrophe. Like the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, the program could tap the immense power of the federal government to provide work as well as hope to small businesses, artists, writers and loan-strapped students as it changes the landscape of the national memory. States and localities could establish commissions to build monuments, statues and memorials. Arts and humanities councils in the states could be enlisted to pursue the creation of public art while encouraging scholarship and public forums on the struggle against slavery and racism. The business sector could participate through public-private partnerships. To coordinate the efforts, Congress and a new administration could establish a national commission — some former presidents might be persuaded to chair it.
As for whom to honor, we might start with these men and women:
Any list must include the U.S. Colored Troops. Black soldiers, whose recruitment was authorized by President Abraham Lincoln in the Emancipation Proclamation, came from every state, including nearly 100,000 from the South. There are only a few scattered memorials to the USCT, notably the beautiful bas-relief to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment on Boston Common, but there should be many more.
The African Americans elected to the Senate and House of Representatives during Reconstruction should all be commemorated in their states. Statues of Sens. Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce, both of Mississippi, should replace those of Jefferson Davis and Alexander H. Stephens, president and vice president of the Confederacy, in Statuary Hall. Individual communities should honor those scores of Reconstruction figures, black and white, elected to state legislatures and local offices.
Giving new and vivid form to “the mystic chords of memory,” as Lincoln put it, would enable us to tell the truth about the old myths and the statues that represent those myths, and it would launch a project of understanding our past as an enduring part of a new struggle for justice and genuine national reconciliation. It would be a response, as King once put it, to “the fierce urgency of now.”
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