Direct Action and the Rejection of Monumental History

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

As people have gathered across the country to oppose police violence, including the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, they have targeted statues, monuments, and buildings commemorating white supremacy. In Philadelphia, protestors defaced a statue of Frank Rizzo, the city’s segregationist mayor and police commissioner. In Birmingham, they toppled a likeness of Confederate veteran and Alabama banker Charles Linn and set fire to another of slaveowning president Thomas Jefferson.

In Richmond, they graffitied monuments of Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and J.E.B. Stuart with slogans like “No More White Supremacy,” “End Police Brutality,” and “ACAB.”  Down the street from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, flames burned inside the national headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the group responsible for erecting dozens of Confederate public shrines. In Nashville, a crowd pulled down a statue of newspaper editor Edward Carmack, a vocal critic of anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells.

Across the United States, protestors are explicitly linking the nation’s history of white supremacy with contemporary police brutality. While some commentators condemn these acts as destructive, protestors understand that it is impossible to create a more equitable society as long as Confederates, segregationists, and other white supremacists are valorized in public spaces. Other opponents decry vandalism as an effort to “erase” history. Yet iconoclasm is as much an act of creation as destruction. With paint, rope, and fire as well as signs, chants, and memorials, anti-racist protestors are enacting a more participatory and more democratic historical commemoration.

Historical memory matters because it is both a gauge and modifier of power. Public monuments have always been sharply politicized and fiercely contested by common people because they grasp the stakes. Commemoration might derive primarily from social and material conditions, rather than the other way around, but memories are not mere perceptions. Rather, collective remembrance is bound to productive relations and political outcomes. Likewise, popular representations of the past are critical to consciousness-raising, organizing, and the capacity for solidarity. As we confront oppressive structures, our historical memory must aspire to be truly democratic.

In contrast, victory obelisks, allegorical martial figures, and statues to generals, politicians, and business elites do not measure up. Inspiring reverence and eliciting emotional, often uncritical reaction, so-called heroic figures cast in stone and bronze reinforce a monumental democracy that assumes great individuals should lead and the rest should follow. Vertical, towering, and celebratory, monuments reflect and reinforce prevailing arrangements of power. They fetishize hierarchy and individualism at the expense of the collective and assume that history is made by “great” men and, far more rarely, women.

Monuments are instruments intended to reflect a particular vision of the past in order to influence the present and shape the future. The dominant chronicle of the U.S. state—as a “march of progress” spurred by democracy and free market capitalism—is encoded into the nation’s monumental landscape. Although generations of critics have assailed public monuments as incompatible with democracy, the nation’s civic landscape remains inundated with representations of military and political leaders. Despite rare examples of countervailing monuments representing members of Black, immigrant, and other marginalized communities, the “statue mania” of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries led to a profusion of “Great White Men” on pedestals. These self-aggrandizing works were physical representations of the ideology of an imperialistic and increasingly militarized nation-state and often linked citizenship to whiteness and war-making.

Leftists must reject this monumental history and the politics that come with it. But we cannot and should not dismiss historical commemoration. Instead, we should follow the lead of activists who are engaging in more democratic forms of remembering the past.

In recent days, protestors across the country have presented an alternative approach to collective memory. Their versions of the past highlight social justice movements and remember the victims of state and white supremacist violence. At rallies, speakers have reminded gathered crowds that the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are only the most recent examples of racist violence that stretches back to the eras of the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, slavery, and beyond. Elsewhere activists have reclaimed public spaces with memorials. For example, at the base of a monument to white supremacist politician John C. Calhoun in Charleston, South Carolina, protestors placed candles commemorating Michael Brown, Alexia Christian, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, and more than two dozen others killed by police in recent years. Social media hashtags like #SayHerName and #SayHisName are explicit calls to remember the victims of police and white vigilantes. Protestors are, in effect, rejecting monuments centered on power, order, and oppression and creating memorials centered on victims, grief, and justice.

These historical narratives are democratic renegotiations of, and direct challenges to, the monumental history embodied in statues of generals and presidents. Unlike those public tributes which tend to celebrate people who hold political office and perpetrate state violence, recent protests have reminded attendees of those who have resisted it. Additionally, rather than emphasize “great” individuals, parades, demonstrations, marches, and other inclusive political acts underscore the power of collective action by communities. As scholar Jodi Dean has written, “Inseparable from the rise of mass democracy, the crowd looms with the threat of the collective power of the masses, the force of the many against those who would exploit, control, and disperse them.” Gatherings in public spaces, as well as commons set aside for artistic creation and re-creation, offer commemorative forms premised on widening the scope of popular participation.

We should follow the lead of antiracist protestors and embrace more democratic and dynamic expressions of public memory. As shown in Philadelphia, Birmingham, Richmond, and beyond, demonstrators are connecting physical structures on courthouse lawns, town squares, universities, and prominent thoroughfares to historical oppression and present-day injustice. By occupying and re-politicizing these spaces through replacement symbols and inscriptions, protestors are widening the scope of public participation and calling into question the suitability, politics, and morality of monuments. These emancipatory histories are still being recovered, and through continued activism against police brutality and against monumental history, new narratives will continue to emerge. Whatever form they take, they must be constructed by collective action, not political and economic elites pretending to speak for “the people.”

In his book Freedom Dreams, Robin D. G. Kelley trenchantly asks, “What shall we build on the ashes of a nightmare?” As protestors topple statues and local governments remove others, we have an opportunity to consider not only which histories we should celebrate but how we should celebrate them. As we fight to build a better world, how should we remember our ancestors and predecessors? Activists in nearly every city in the nation are already showing us the answer.

Jacob F. Lee is assistant professor of history at Penn State University focusing colonialism and borderlands in early America. His book, Masters of the Middle Waters: Indian Nations and Colonial Ambitions Along the Mississippi (Harvard University Press, 2019), won the 2019 Jon Gjerde Prize in Midwest History.   Matthew E. Stanley is assistant professor of history at Albany State University.  He is the author of three books on war and memory, including the forthcoming Grand Army of Labor: Workers, Veterans, and the Meaning of the Civil War (University of Illinois Press, 2021).