Undercurrents of Opposition and the Catalyst for Change
Sarah Beetham, Assistant Professor of Art History, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Her current book project, Monumental Crisis: Accident, Vandalism, and the Civil War Soldier, places the recent Confederate monument debate in the context of the long history of material alteration of Civil War monuments. To learn more about Dr. Beetham's work, or to book her to speak about monuments, visit her website.
On May 23, 2011, the local Confederate monument in Reidsville, North Carolina was smashed to pieces when a sleepy van driver plowed into its base, knocking the statue to the ground. This was not a deliberate act of iconoclasm, not a political call to arms. But after the statue was destroyed, the city government and the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy decided not to restore it to its location at the center of town. Instead, the Daughters commissioned a new statue and placed it in the Confederate section of a nearby cemetery. They reasoned that it would be in poor taste to erect a new monument that recommitted the city to the Confederate cause and chose to avoid “any unpleasantness” that might have accompanied such a move.
The situation in Reidsville demonstrates that a deep undercurrent of opposition to Confederate monuments existed long before recent events sparked widespread calls for their removal. But in Reidsville, the monument might have stood unchallenged indefinitely if the car accident had not acted as a catalyst to bring long-simmering resentments to the surface. On the national stage, it has been widely acknowledged that the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina triggered the current anti-monument movement. But why was this event so influential? Looking back at the period immediately preceding the shooting, it becomes clear that several major currents, including the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement and activities surrounding the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, contributed to making the Charleston moment into a movement.
The Black Lives Matter movement was founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in 2013, in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. It began as a hashtag on social media, but quickly became a powerful organizing tool for local communities mobilizing to protest police shootings of unarmed Black people. In the summer of 2014, national attention focused on protests in the city of Ferguson, Missouri after Mike Brown was shot by a police officer. Mass protests broke out again in Baltimore, Maryland in April 2015, less than two months before the Charleston shooting, after Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained in the back of a police transport van. When Dylann Roof murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston in an act of explicit white supremacist violence, he galvanized a movement that was ready to mobilize for change.
Roof’s actions also identified a target for that change. In the days after the shooting, images emerged of the shooter brandishing a handgun while waving a Confederate flag, powerfully illustrating the connection between modern racist violence and the veneration of the Confederate cause. And activists were ready with source material to argue that connection persuasively. The Charleston shooting took place just as national commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War was drawing to a close. From 2011 to 2015, daily blogs and Twitter feeds walked through the events of the Civil War day by day, drawing from cutting-edge academic research that thoroughly debunked the tenets of Confederate Lost Cause ideology. The Charleston shooting took place two days before the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in Texas that is still celebrated in many Black communities. At the time, the shooting felt like a nightmare at the end of a long period of reflection and celebration, but looking back, it is clear that public outreach by historians paved the way for the overhaul of the Confederate memorial landscape that has taken place over the last three years.
Opposition to Lost Cause ideology and Confederate monuments has always existed, but for more than a century it was suppressed by a dominant culture that chose to ignore the truth about the Civil War and the horrors of slavery. In the decades since the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s, these opposition voices have grown stronger, but in order to bring change to the static memorial landscape, a catalyst of some kind was necessary. In Reidsville, the spark came in the form of a car accident that unmade what had been set in stone. For the nation, a senseless tragedy occurred at a moment when many Americans were primed to rethink the place of Confederate veneration on the national stage. That spark has ignited a global movement to reconsider monuments that no longer conform to twenty-first century values. When and if this movement will end remains to be seen, but the reckoning it has brought is long overdue.
Join the Museum at the final History Happy Hour of the season, Monument Avenue, Shockoe Bottom, and Richmond's Commemorative Landscape, this evening at 6:30..