In the aftermath of the Charlottesville, VA riot on August 12th, conversations around race and history have become more aggravated and amplified. In this current peak of racial tension, much attention has been given to the significance of Confederate statues and memorials, particularly in the American South. Given that the symbols of the Confederacy have long been used by white supremacists to push their toxic ideology, it should not be surprising that there are many people with strong feelings on their prevalence in modern society, even 152 years after the end of the Civil War.
There are those who have called for them to be torn down and destroyed because of the racist beliefs of those they memorialize and more importantly, the white supremacist views of those who built the memorials. There are those who have called for their preservation because of the historical importance of the Confederacy and the Civil War, arguing that removing such memorials is tantamount to wiping away history.
One particular flashpoint in that debate is the carving of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson that decorates the side of Stone Mountain in DeKalb County. Recently, Georgia State Representative and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams called for its removal, stating that it “remains a blight on our state and should be removed.” In stark contrast, civil rights icon and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young seemed disinterested in making an effort to remove such symbols, as “it is too costly to refight the Civil War.”
He may have a point. I believe that the vast majority of people who hold these monuments dear do not do so out of hate or racism. They do so out of pride and admiration for their ancestors. The Confederates may have been traitors who waged a war against the United States, but they still fought for the State of Georgia. Tearing down those monuments may only serve to drive a wedge deeper between whites and blacks that could take decades to undo.
Instead, I believe there is a better, simpler, more viable solution – recontextualization. Statues of Confederate figures around the state should all be accompanied by a plaque that clarifies their role in the war and what their actions were, even if those actions were atrocious or unheroic. All the Confederate symbols in the state and the country, regardless of the reason they were erected, now present an opportunity for future generations to learn about the mistakes of the past.
In the case of the carving on Stone Mountain, there are few other options, given the monument’s protection under state law and the difficulty of removing a piece of that type and magnitude. A good starting point in recontextualizing the memorial would be appointing a black Georgian to the Stone Mountain Memorial Association board, as they would no doubt bring a unique perspective to the currently all-white group. Stone Mountain is a place that should be open and welcoming to all people, which means finding a solution that can help bring people together.
We’ve learned from the effects of those memorials as well. Georgia has come a long way since the day the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross atop Stone Mountain, which served to reignite the organization. In just six days, Governor Nathan Deal will unveil a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Gold Dome, a long overdue move that Deal deserves some credit for spearheading. These are the types of statues that should continue to be built in the future – those men and women who fought for equality, civil rights, and justice for everyone, not just a few.
We need to come together and have a frank discussion about how best to pursue that vision of equality and unity. Those who strongly oppose the existence of Confederate monuments and those who support their existence should listen to each other and operate in good faith, without assuming anything about their intentions. In this moment, there is an opportunity to learn from one another and grow as a community.
It is an opportunity we would be foolish to let pass.
Tharon Johnson is a consultant with Paramount Consulting Group and a Democrat strategist.