Like pretty much everyone else in the US, I have an opinion about statues that honor Confederate leaders. At first, I had mixed feelings. After all, tearing down a statue doesn’t erase centuries of oppression. Moreover, the educator in me wondered if placing the statues in context would be a good compromise. For example, I imagined a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest surrounded by statues of every person who was killed by the KKK. However, this didn’t satisfy me either. However, when I read historian Kevin M. Levin’s article in The Atlantic, I saw an answer that made sense to me.
Levin echoes my concerns as an educator who used the monuments as classrooms. He saw the potential of using monuments to discuss the legacy of the Civil War, the rise of hate groups, and resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. Levin said he once thought that “Monument sites became classrooms where I could teach about the long and difficult history of racism in America. Taking them down seemed to represent the antithesis of my goals as a teacher.” Teaching history means exposing the less savory parts of our journey. The monuments embodied these issues.
Levin goes on to say that his mind changed. He shares his experience of traveling to Prague where he “noticed almost immediately the concrete foundations and empty pedestals where monuments to communist leaders once stood.” For Levin, the empty pedestals serve as an equally poignant reminder Soviet oppression. Stalin and Lenin are no longer glorified in bronze, but neither is the reminder of their systemic abuse of the Czech people erased. The pedestals are mute but solid.
Perhaps we can learn from the Czech throughout the South. Memphis hosts a number of Confederate monuments, most notably the grave of Forrest and a park around it. I think we would all feel differently if we walked by an empty pedestal instead of a statute of a racist sitting majestically on his horse.