On Saturday 12 August 2017, a CNN reporter interviewed a young man taking part in the ‘Unite the Right’ protest against the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which stood, until a month ago, in Emancipation Park, Charlottesville, Virginia. The unnamed protester used the following rationale to justify Unite the Right’s actions:
‘We are not white supremacists. We are simply white people that love our heritage, our culture, our European identity…’
The interviewee was unashamed: his tone was reasonable, his face was uncovered and he looked straight into the camera. He was able to rationalise his argument because it was supported by several mainstream ideas about the purposes of ‘heritage’ in our society.
Firstly, that old statues and monuments should be protected because they are ‘historical’. In interviews and speeches, white supremacists outraged by the prospect of Lee’s removal asserted that they were fighting to protect a historic monument of the South. The rally came after a wave of decisions to remove or rename more than 60 Confederate monuments and symbols following the 2015 massacre of 9 black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, by white supremacist Dylann Roof. For instance, the leader of the protest at Charlottesville, Jason Kessler, highlighted the need to ‘protect’ the history of the Confederacy. By invoking such rhetoric, white supremacists attempt to present their views as neutral and normal, rather than radical.
An early forerunner of the Charlottesville controversy was the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, which first emerged at the University of Cape Town in March 2015 as a protest against a statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes in the university grounds. The campaign spread to Oxford University where a statue of Rhodes can be found on the façade of Oriel College. Those who wished to keep Rhodes’s statue argued that it was wrong to destroy part of a ‘historical’ building. A statement released by Oriel College in December 2015 highlighted that ‘the statue, and the building on which it stands, is Grade II* listed, and has been identified by Historic England as being of particular historical interest’. Yet events in Charlottesville call into question the legitimacy of keeping a controversial statue simply because of its historic value.
The second mainstream idea invoked by white supremacists is heritage as a link to ‘our’ past identity. In Charlottesville, many Unite the Right protesters claimed that the Lee statue was representative of proud Southern identity. ‘We will not be replaced,’ shouted the protesters, referring to the perceived erosion of white Southern culture.
During the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, some argued that the statue was ‘part of our (national) history’, good or bad, and therefore should not be removed. A key difference in debates about whether to tear down statues of Robert E. Lee and Cecil Rhodes is that there was no strong case that Rhodes should remain because he represented a strand of British history that should be glorified.
While it seems harmless to state that such monuments are a ‘natural’ representation of our ‘collective’ past and national identity, these statues were erected to celebrate certain institutions and ideas. Lee sits astride a horse, ready to go to battle to preserve the Southern white man’s way of life, including the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery. The statue was commissioned 100 years ago, 52 years after the end of the civil war. It was paid for by wealthy Charlottesville philanthropist, Paul G. McIntire, whose father was the mayor of the town when it surrendered to Union forces in 1865. At the opening ceremony of the statue on 21 May 1924, the Commander of the Virginia Grand Camp of Confederate Veterans, C. B. Linney, gave a speech in which he highlighted the importance of remembering and reinvigorating the Confederate cause:
“I thank God that we have lost nothing of our love for the Cause by the lapse of time, which has wisely served to intensify our devotion…. My comrades, ours is a rich heritage, oh, how rich!”
Lee’s statue continues to suggest that it is moral to protect and fight for the Confederate cause. However, the identity and culture that Robert E. Lee stands for no longer represents the identity and culture of the current population of Charlottesville. Sometimes what is presented as ‘our heritage’ is not always everyone’s heritage.
The third mainstream idea that white nationalists have adopted to rationalise their actions is that controversial statues should be preserved so that we can learn from them. Ms R. S. McCoy, contributor to the right-wing newspaper Revolutionary Conservative and a protester at the Unite the Right rally, argued that:
‘If we look at it from their [African Americans’] perspective even – which is you know, oh we’ve had slavery and racism and all these horrible things and we want to make this go away, so we’re going to tear down monuments and rename all these streets – how are future generations going to learn?’
In a similar vein, Oriel College argued in a statement that the Rhodes Must Fall debate had ‘underlined that the continuing presence of these historical artefacts is an important reminder of the complexity of history and of the legacies of colonialism still felt today’. While Oriel’s argument was more nuanced, the college similarly legitimised the idea that controversial statues should remain in the public domain by arguing that they offer a lesson from history, even if they cause offence in the present day.
To what extent do statues in public spaces really encourage us to ‘learn from the past’, especially if there is no interpretation attached to them? Finally removed in September 2017 as a ‘symbol of injustice’, the bronze Lee statue was previously situated in a public park, where locals had the right to spend leisure time and its presence upset many people in the community. The educative potential of such statues as historical objects could arguably be more effectively pursued in public museums, where they could be critically contextualised.
Historic statues in public spaces have the power to perpetuate outdated ideas held by past ruling elites and propagate certain ideologies linking nation, race, and identity. The erection of public monuments has often been the exclusive domain of those who have the money, power and authority to build them. We must remain critical of the ‘heritage justification’: simply because an object is old or historic, it should not necessarily be immediately identified as unitary, depoliticised heritage. Indeed, heritage has become a legitimising language for groups that threaten to bring back historic power relationships based on race, which have no place in our world today.