The Op-Ed Page
By Paul V. DeMarco
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there remain more than 700 statues in our nation honoring Confederates. I pass one regularly in my hometown of Marion. It is by far the most impressive statue in the county. The city of Marion website gives its dimensions: a seven-foot bronze replica of a Confederate soldier and a 22-foot Winnsboro blue granite base.
Like many similar statues, the statue was purchased with funds raised by the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy. When it was erected in 1903, it was located in one of the intersections of Marion’s small business district. It was moved out of the intersection to its current location near the public library in 1952.
Legend has it that is was moved after being struck by more than one wayward (and as related by some wags, drunk) drivers. The website offers a much less interesting reason – to make way for new traffic lights. Whatever the motive, the soldier retreated southward only a few dozen yards, but he remains north-facing, gazing tirelessly at the horizon for the reappearance of Yankee invaders.
As far as I know, there has been no public discussion of whether to remove Marion’s version of Johnny Reb from his high perch. Both sides would have their proponents. Some, including former President Trump, argue against removal. In a campaign speech in June 2020, Trump said “This cruel campaign of censorship and exclusion violates everything we hold dear as Americans. They want to demolish our heritage so they can impose a new oppressive regime in its place.” Trump has argued that the fight to save the statues “is a battle to save the Heritage, History, and Greatness of our Country.”
Many Americans, some of whom are black, have a less bombastic anti-removal argument: The statues serve as an important part of our collective memory. They assert that we should leave the statues up to remember who we as a people were, including the terrible mistakes we have made. Even if the statues glorify Southern politicians and military men who supported the enslavement of blacks, remembering these men is a way of inoculating ourselves against that kind of hatred creeping back into our national psyche.
While I appreciate those arguments, I come down on the side of removing Confederate statues. I would argue that statues are not raised to teach history. That is the job of families, schools and universities. History is too broad, too nuanced, and too complex to be taught with public monuments.
Rather than teaching history, statues are erected to reflect our shared values. We carefully select the people and events from history that best represent who we are and enshrine them for generations to come.
The city of Marion’s Confederate statue was erected at a time when racial oppression was ironclad. I think it can be accurately seen as symbolizing and perpetuating the white supremacist society that blacks were forced to endure during the Jim Crow era. The inscription on the plinth gives it away. It says in part, “To the memory of those valiant souls who went forth from Old Marion to yield up their lives in patriotic devotion to the South and all that the South stood for.”
Remove the euphemism “all that the South stood for” and chisel in less-vague descriptions of the racial reality at the turn of the twentieth century. Take your sculptor’s mallet and mentally carve “oppression,” “persecution,” “brutality” and “terrorism.” Then the inscription is revealed for the propaganda that it is, propping up the lie that the Civil War was fought for something other than the preservation of black subjugation.
Confederate soldiers should be memorialized. They were men with families that loved them. They had lives before, and, if they survived, after their service to the Confederacy. Their living descendants can decide how that should best be done in the cemeteries in which they lie. The National Park Service maintains 17 Civil War battlefields, and states maintain many more. Multiple opportunities for reenactments still exist for those who are captivated by that conflict.
I wish I had a foolproof algorithm for whether a statue should be removed. The central question for me is, “What was the primary legacy of the person memorialized?” That approach, in my mind, disqualifies the political and military leaders of the Confederacy, a failed attempt to fracture the Union for the purpose of maintaining slavery.
But I don’t think owning slaves alone necessarily disqualifies a historical figure, particularly the Founding Fathers. Their role in establishing a new country dedicated to the ideal of freedom is their overarching legacy, even though many of them owned slaves.
To that point, there is only one other statue of a historical figure in the city of Marion. Located on the courthouse square, it is a likeness of Revolutionary War Brigadier General Francis Marion, known as the “Swamp Fox.” It was dedicated in 1976 as part of our town’s celebration of America’s Bicentennial. Marion was a slaveholder. But his part in the Revolutionary War effort and his later service in the South Carolina General Assembly make him an inspirational, if flawed, figure. I would argue his statue stays.
Once a Confederate monument is removed, many communities struggle with how to choose its replacement. In Marion County that choice would be easy: Clementa Pinckney, the South Carolina state senator and senior pastor of Mother Emmanuel who was murdered along with eight of his parishioners in 2015. Pinckney had family in Marion County and is buried here. His life and legacy represent the values and hopes of Marionites in a way that a Confederate memorial never could.