Matthew Riley is a sophomore journalism major at MU. He is an opinions columnist who writes about politics for The Maneater.
The German Reich Chancellery, April 30, 1945: Adolf Hitler takes his own life in an underground bunker rather than being captured. Same location, 2017: the parking lot of an apartment complex. There is a difference between remembering our mistakes and celebrating them. The Germans don’t build monuments to Adolf Hitler; they understand that World War II was one of the most horrific events in human history. So, why do so many Americans ornament their trucks with Confederate flag bumper stickers and litter their parks with monuments to men who fought to keep an entire race enslaved?
There are as many as 188 schools in the U.S. named after Confederate leaders. Eight states still celebrate “Confederate Memorial Day” or similar Confederate-themed holidays. A 2016 inventory of Confederate symbols in public spaces by the Southern Poverty Law Center found over 1,500 such memorials, 718 of them monuments like the statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. A vote for the memorial’s removal came six months before the “Unite the Right” rally there in mid-August. Many of these statues were built between the 1890s and 1950s with funds raised by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group originally formed largely by wives and daughters of Confederate soldiers, in order to honor the legacies of their husbands and fathers.
The building of these statues coincides almost perfectly with the era of Jim Crow laws. Most of these statues are not in cemeteries or museums; they’re in parks and in front of state legislature buildings. By making these statues so prevalent, they begin to feel oppressive rather than commemorative. Abundant monuments to a war for white supremacy is a constant reminder to African Americans that their presence in this country has a grim history, and if it were up to many, slavery might not have ended when it did.
As supporters of these statues rally for their preservation and opponents tear them down, a fierce debate about their potential merits rears its head again. Supporters claim the statues, schools, flags and holidays represent “heritage, not hate,” while opponents claim they only glorify a movement whose purpose was to oppress millions of human beings. Many supporters claim that the Civil War was never fought over slavery but for the rights of states in the face of an overly powerful federal government. Make no mistake, the Civil War was not fought over vague ideological differences. There was nothing valiant or honorable in the South’s cause. It was economic, pure and simple; they didn’t have to pay slaves. They lost, and both the country and its many African-American citizens are better for it. The South needs to take down its glorified participation trophies and get with the times. These memorabilia would be better served in museums, where the full scope of the conflict could be explained. It’s time to leave the past in the past and look to the future without these monuments and statues polluting our public spaces.