A Reckoning For 'Relics Of The Past' And Monuments To 'Imperfect Heroes'
Fresh from casting her vote on primary day, Shona Casey Sondergeld of Louisville was in a good mood. She had just participated in democracy and she felt like that participation is more important than ever.
“Things are changing, and we have to keep that momentum going,” she said.
Sondergeld, who is Black, said she's optimistic that there’s momentum because of the change she can already see in her city.
“We don't have to walk down the street and see some of the terrible statues,” she said. “They're going away.”
Conversations about such statues are not new. But lately there seems to be less talking and more doing when it comes to objects that are symbols of oppression and hatred to lots of people. Monuments are coming down across the nation, some through governmental process and others at the hands of people demonstrating against racial injustice and the police killings of Black people.
Here in Kentucky, two statues of men with ties to the Confederacy have been removed: a statue of John B. Castleman, who served in the Confederate and Union armies, was taken down from Louisville’s Cherokee Triangle in early June. Shortly after,crews removed a Jefferson Davis statue from the State Capitol Building after the Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted 11 to 1 to relocate it to Jefferson Davis Historic Park, in Fairview, Ky.
Who Gets Memorialized And Why
Kentucky’s senior U.S. Senator, Republican Mitch McConnell, has, for years, spoken out against the Davis statue in the Capitol Rotunda, saying it would probably be better off in a history museum. But media outlets report that in 2015, he was not as vocal about the Confederate statues at the U.S. Capitol.
"I'm not aware of what we have and don't have,” McConnell said of the federal pieces, according to a report from The Hill.
In a June 23 speech on the Senate floor, McConnell addressed the monument debate again: this time he appeared to take issue with protesters putting graffiti on, or even burning or bringing down, statues on their own. Some of these toppled monuments featured men considered to be the nation’s founding fathers, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
“This is the general and first President who built our nation, and the author of the Declaration of Independence,” McConnell said in his Senate floor remarks. “Genius statesmen who helped begin this grand experiment that has brought freedom to hundreds of millions and saved the world a few times, for good measure. And yet a crazy fringe is treating their monuments like vanity statues of tin-horn tyrants. Our founding fathers are being roped to the ground like they were Saddam Hussein.”
He called protesters “far-left radicals,” and also expressed disdain for the toppling of statues of figures like missionary Saint Junipero Serra and Ulysses S. Grant.
McConnell asked for society to have, “nuanced conversations about our complex past.”
WFPL News reached out to McConnell’s office for an interview. A spokesperson told us she couldn’t promise one, and if he “comments further on his speech,” she’d let us know.
President Donald Trump has also come out in defense of these monuments. Following protesters’ attempts to remove a statue of President Andrew Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, he issued an executive order to “protect American monuments, memorials and statues.” The order bolstered an already existing law that could mean prison time for anyone who defaces monuments on federal grounds.
The Country’s ‘Imperfect Heroes’
McConnell called the men in these monuments, such as Washington and Jefferson, “imperfect heroes,” who built a nation that, “is still the most perfect Union the world has ever seen.”
“George Washington was the first president of the new Republic, but he also owned slaves,” Dewey Clayton, a professor of political science at the University of Louisville, said.
Clayton understands why protesters might want statues like these moved out of the public realm.
“Being the first president, he really set the tone for this nation... actually supporting and condoning slavery,” he said.
Pointing to McConnell’s remarks, Clayton said he thought it was interesting how McConnell attributed the building of this nation to Washington.
“Well, one could argue that slaves built this country as well,” Clayton said.
Clayton authored a 2015 op-ed calling for the removal of a monument to Confederate soldiers at the University of Louisville. He felt it was “historically inaccurate,” as Kentucky never joined the Confederacy, and its presence was offensive to many on campus. He also served on Mayor Greg Fischer’s Public Art and Monuments Advisory Committee, which determined guidance for examining the city’s public art and monument collection in the wake of the Castleman statue debate.
Clayton hopes grappling with these physical “relics of the past” are indicative of much broader cultural shifts, including having “long overdue” and “uncomfortable” conversations about race and equity.
“And so now we're at a reckoning point and young people are starting to say, we no longer want to debate these issues,” he said.
State Rep. Attica Scott, D-Jefferson County, said Black Americans have tried to get the country to address racism and its violent past for a long time. Having been at local protests, she thinks the statues brought down by demonstrators are a reflection of the exhaustion from decades of demands falling on deaf ears.
“The young people who are taking that baton now are saying, there are some things we're just going to do ourselves, and you're going to have to come along with us: government, politics, business, etc.,” Scott said.
Many are tired of living in a country where they feel dehumanized by public monuments to the Confederacy or to these “imperfect heroes,” she said.
“These are imperfect heroes to maintaining Whiteness in a system of Whiteness and inhumanity toward Native Indians, Black people, Latinx folks and other Indigenous people,” Scott said.
She also pushes back against the notion that these pieces serve an educational purpose, a frequent talking point in favor of keeping them in public spaces.
“I have not seen where these have been real tools for education and definitely not an education around how do we dismantle racism, how do we make sure that we build a better society,” Scott said.
Paul Farber, artistic director and co-founder of the Philadelphia-based public art and history research studio Monument Lab, said that adding signage or programming can bring some context to the piece, but rarely can “compete with the dominance of the symbol itself."
“Monuments can be platforms for critical and open-ended pedagogy, yet that's not their primary function,” Farber said. “Traditionally, they enforce an idea that this is history. You wouldn't look at a single photograph or the single page of a book to understand an entire historical period or figure. But that's generally how statues are conceived in public spaces, by virtue of their weight, placement and relationships to power.”
More Than A Symbolic Gesture?
State Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Jefferson County, said he is heartened by the monuments coming down. However, he said such acts must also be more than symbolic gestures and people, like McConnell, “have the power to eliminate racial disparities in our country.”
“At the end of the day, it’s not really about the symbols,” Neal said. “It's really about how people's lives are affected. And everyday, he has the ability to give leadership to that.”
Neal describes this time as a, “moral moment.”
“This is really not a Black problem,” he said in regards to racism and racist symbols. “It’s a problem as in the impact of racism in this society, but… it’s a White problem. Will people of good will, who happen to be White… will they speak up? Will they act?”
Louisville resident Shona Casey Sondergeld agrees that people in power need to do more to address racism. That’s part of what motivates her to vote every election.
Yet she’s also grateful that removing monuments means she doesn’t have to keep explaining to her two kids why people like Confederate generals and soldiers, get propped up on pedestals, literally, in public spaces.
“If they want to know about them, they can read about them in a book,” she said.