ATLANTA — Mayor Kasim Reed has formed a committee to make recommendations on what to do with this city’s Confederate monuments. Some cities, like Baltimore and New Orleans, removed many of their monuments without asking for citizens’ input — to both cheers and criticism. Atlanta’s approach (similar to New York City’s tack), while much slower, seeks the community’s feedback to parse out exactly which monuments are problematic and why. The committee, which held three public meetings this month, doesn’t have the power to make final decisions on these monuments — that belongs to Mayor Reed — but it is largely expected that the city will follow the recommendations in its report. This committee is comprised of black and white people; academics; the directors of the Atlanta History Center, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and the African American Panoramic Experience Museum; and community advocates. The process has involved lengthy discussion of monuments, public comments, and a review of reports submitted by local groups.
At the center of the city’s monuments discussion is the recognition that maybe not all Confederate monuments deserve to be removed. For example, one monument featuring a Confederate soldier was actually dedicated to reunification after the war; what now looks like a symbol of hate was originally intended to be a symbol of unity. Another monument that has come under scrutiny is actually dedicated to a Union soldier. Some monuments do indeed bear the vestiges of glorifying the Confederate cause; however, there are many hurdles on the path to their removal.
The biggest challenges to removing monuments are not public opinion, but the legal barriers. In 2001, when Georgia scrapped its segregation-era flag (complete with the stars and bars), part of the state code was changed to make it unlawful to remove Confederate monuments. The code now stipulates: “It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, corporation, or other entity acting without authority to mutilate, deface, defile, abuse contemptuously, relocate, remove, conceal, or obscure any privately owned monument, plaque, marker, or memorial which is dedicated to, honors, or recounts the military service of any past or present military personnel of this state, the United States of America or the several states thereof, or the Confederate States of America or the several states thereof.” Removing monuments will require determining who owns them — the local municipality or the state — and then possibly getting state-level legislation passed to do so.
Since the city’s monuments committee was formed, think tanks have issued policy papers outlining what they believe the the committee should be doing, and every party seems to have very strong and diverging opinions. The Coffee Group, a consortium of black academics in Atlanta, submitted a report that says: “The only moral and legitimate purpose of any government committee honoring those who advocated for our enslavement is to determine how they will be removed as soon as possible.” In his report, Charlie Crawford of the Georgia Battlefields Association (and a descendent of Union soldiers, as he points out) suggests:
Historical markers indicate what happened at a particular site, and are always free of rationalizations or political characterizations. In contract, monuments often extol the virtues — or supposed virtues — of individuals or political philosophies. I would caution against any universal approach to all markers and monuments and plaques and street names. Instead, please establish a policy that will consider each marker or statue or monument individually so that we don’t obscure the significance of a historic site in our effort to remove reminders of a time when the city government endorsed white supremacy.
Intent, and whether it should play into the decision-making process, have become major topics in discussions about these monuments. Take, for example, two obelisks in Atlanta. In Oakland Cemetery, an obelisk sits on the highest point in the historic property. It simply reads “Our Confederate Dead,” and behind it stretches a field of Confederate graves. The three-story-tall obelisk was erected in 1874, and for decades after was the sight of Confederate Memorial Day events. More than 4,000 soldiers were buried near the obelisk, and families would come to remember sons who had died in the war. By comparison, an obelisk in front of the courthouse in the liberal, upscale neighborhood of Decatur is definitely a piece of propaganda. Inscribed at its base is a text that includes this passage: “After forty two years another generation bears witness to the future that these men were of a covenant keeping race who held fast to the faith as it was given by the fathers of the Republic.” This obelisk was erected in 1908 as a way to glorify the “Lost Cause” ideology. Here is a case where intent matters, and it is still unknown how the committee will handle these types of issues.
Intent sometimes gets overlooked, and protestors occasionally see the artist’s original message as irrelevant to modern-day interpretation. Recently, Antifa protestors targeted a peace monument in Piedmont Park. In this statue, an angel presides over a Confederate soldier, and with her hand, urges him to put his weapon down. In the angel’s other hand, she holds an olive branch toward the sky. The Gate City Guard erected this statue in 1911 to encourage peaceful unification of the North and South. Looking at it and reading its inscription, the message is clear. Yet protestors only saw the Confederate soldier and tried to take the peace monument down. Ironically, they only succeeded in breaking off the olive branch — the symbol of peace.
Atlanta’s Confederate monument quagmire is indicative of how complicated this issue is nationwide. Blanket solutions may be enticing, and holding that anything remotely Confederate represents hate and must be removed seems like a reasonable response to the situation. However, such a response doesn’t take into account the complexity of the issue. Some monuments may look like they glorify the Confederacy, but are actually dedicated to the Union or celebrate reunification, or may even be completely unrelated. And there’s the issue of honoring the dead, and how to deal with cemetery monuments to fallen Confederates. While other cities have sparked both protest and praise for their swift removal of monuments, Atlanta has opted to put these difficult questions to its citizens. The ensuing debates and conversations have the potential to be just as powerful and productive as the monuments’ eventual removal.
Out of the purview of Atlanta’s committee, but still very relevant, is the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Carving. Located about 20 minutes outside of Atlanta, the community of Stone Mountain and its namesake park are the proud hosts of the world’s largest bas relief sculpture — and it’s clearly a symbol of racism. The city was the birthplace to the modern Ku Klux Klan in the 1910s. From 1924 to 1972, numerous artists worked on the massive carving that depicts three Confederate figures: President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The site moved from private ownership to state ownership in the 1970s, and it is now a public park that receives 4 million visitors annually. In the summertime, the sculpture itself is illuminated with the “Lasershow Spectacular in Mountainvision,” which tells the story of the Civil War, complete with patriotism and fireworks (and sans romanticism about the old South). The viewing lawn is usually full of immigrant families from around the world, including refugees from the nearby city of Clarkston, which includes the most diverse square mile in the US. The NAACP has called for sand-blasting the sculpture off the mountain, but this may prove to be a cost-prohibitive and unpopular solution. The governor of Georgia would have to make a decision as to the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Carving’s fate.
Stone Mountain’s massive bas relief is one of the more extreme reminders that the South is a land of contradictions, where representation and reality melt into heat-induced hallucinations. Hierarchies of class and race, lingering from past eras, form a baroque system of privilege that can be completely incomprehensible to outsiders. When it comes to our relationship to our past, the Confederacy, and who we want to be in the future, there’s no easy way to separate our history — bad and good — from who we are today and will be tomorrow.
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