If the summer of 2020 had a visual refrain, it was of statues coming down, the likes of Jefferson Davis and Christopher Columbus being sawed and pulled from plinths, dragged into rivers. For anyone old enough, the memes recalled watching the Berlin Wall crumble in real time, or the footage of Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled by a tank during the fall of Baghdad in 2003.
Amid the public outrage over the murder of George Floyd, and what his death reminded us about racial injustice in America, the most popular targets of demonstrations were also the most familiar: Confederate generals like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, men who articulated the degree to which the South’s Lost Cause mythology had been woven into the backdrop of American culture, totems of just how deeply racism had been institutionalized. For many, tearing them down, or simply watching them be torn down, was both cathartic and symbolic: The violent tradition of racial oppression—against Native Americans and Black Americans in particular—might finally be rooted out.
Erin Thompson dove into this phenomenon somewhat infamously on social media, with a tweet about using chains instead of rope if you wanted to pull a statue down faster. It was tongue-in-cheek, sort of—and was, in any case, just a follow-up to an archaeologist’s tweet of a napkin schematic detailing ancient methods of moving obelisks. But if anyone would know the most effective ways to take down public art, Thompson would. As a professor of art crime, she has spent years studying the ways in which cultural heritage is replaced, erased, and destroyed—institutionally or otherwise. Though she never expected her expertise to be this timely, the attack on white, patrilineal statuary was right in her wheelhouse: “I had studied how the Islamic State, for instance, enforced their vision of a hate-filled future by destroying ancient statues. Preserving monuments that praise a hate-filled past, ignoring the wishes of communities, is just as despotic.”
Thompson noticed something peculiar about the trend: The most common Confederate statues weren’t the most vilified. Figures such as Lee and Jackson and J. E. B. Stuart drew a lot of attention. But the most common Confederate statue out there has been an anonymous soldier, standing at what’s known as parade rest: a posture of attention, a pose of discipline. “It’s not celebrating heroism,” Thompson says. “It’s not celebrating skill. It’s celebrating the low-ranking soldier’s ability to stand there without moving or speaking and listen to his betters.”
Curious about this Confederate everyman, Thompson dove into archives—as best she could, given the restrictions of the pandemic—and dug around for speeches and articles, paying particular attention to events surrounding a particular statue’s dedication. She landed on a remarkable hypothesis—that these anonymous Confederate statues were erected to suppress the rights of white workers.
This and other ways of looking at controversial statuary are in Thompson’s forthcoming book, Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of American Monuments, which explores the motivations of the politicians, patrons, and artists who helped establish these monuments in the first place, as well as contemporary debates over what to do with them. Along the way, she’s been able to dissect the narrative around controversial monuments into curious parts. And she leans into questions about what might come next as the public debates best practices for future commemorations. She also looks at how the hierarchy embedded in old monuments and statues has been incorporated into radical artistic responses—such as the Houston Museum of African American Culture’s exhibition of a Confederate statue removed from a local park.
One of the tropes of this debate she attempts to cut through is the value of historical relativism. “People tend to talk about monuments like they’re some sort of democratic product of our national consensus—but no, they’re made by people who have enough money to pay for them and enough power to put them in a public place.” And here is where, guided by the historian’s instincts, her theory about labor rights sharpens.
“I wanted to figure out why all these Confederate monuments looked the same, with this unnamed low-ranking soldier standing in the same position,” she says. “I started to look at the timing. It’s often assumed that these monuments were put up to intimidate Black voters, but they only really go up after the solidification of Jim Crow laws. They go up only after Black voters have already been disenfranchised—and besides, white people had much more effective means of intimidating Black voters than statues.” What she discovered through this orbiting research was that many statues’ dedications corresponded with moments of labor unrest. The Birmingham Confederate monument, for example, was erected in two parts, separated by eleven years. “Each time, it went up in response to a threatened strike by the area’s mine workers. Both of those strikes were organized by an interracial coalition of workers. And in all the speeches during both dedications, there was talk of the ‘hideous specter of race equality.’ So essentially, they were a reminder, an attempt to persuade white working-class Southerners that they should not cross racial boundaries in order to make alliances, that they should obey their betters—the factory owners, the politicians—just as Confederate soldiers had obeyed their generals.”
As with any counterintuitive argument, and for the historian in particular, there’s a danger of falling into a kind of confirmation bias. Thompson was aware of this, and so was careful to test it rigorously. Unsurprisingly, it meant poring over original material. “While I couldn’t read everything ever written about all Confederate monuments, I tried to read absolutely everything for the ones I chose for the book. I read so many speeches from fundraising events and dedications. At the time, people were unashamed of what they were doing. I could test out my theory by seeing if it applied to other monuments. It was like, ‘Okay, it works over here. And, yep, another strike, another labor unrest, another factory owner making the dedication speech.’ ”
Landing on certain phrasing was a jolt that led to more digging. Take Julian Shakespeare Carr, a United Confederate Veterans leader and major industrialist, who delivered a speech that praised the low-ranking Confederate soldier for making himself the “cog of a wheel.” That praise, Thompson points out, was barely veiled: “He needed workers who wouldn’t agitate for higher wages and take away his wealth.”
For Thompson, far from being an academic indulgence, homing in on the nexus between racist statuary and labor rights is an important way to recalibrate what’s at stake. “In debates these days, a lot of white citizens might talk about regretting how monuments make their minority neighbors feel, but they don’t feel personally attacked. But the more I look into history, the more I say, ‘No. These things are telling everybody who isn’t incredibly wealthy and powerful that they should obey the wealthy and the powerful.’ So I think everyone should feel uncomfortable, if not downright offended by them, rather than simply celebrating them as a part of ‘history.’”
As for the argument that toppling statues is a dangerous equivalent to erasing history, Thompson likes to counter by taking a few steps back. “Monuments convey honor, not history. If you want to erase history, you must erase all sources of historical information. You must punish people for even talking about history or trying to pass down their language and cultural traditions. You must do what white American settlers tried to do to Native Americans. And guess what? It doesn’t even really work, if people want to remember. I see very little danger to the actual history embodied in our monuments, even if they all come down.”
— Paul Reyes
Erin Thompson’s Reading List
Thomas L. Connelly, The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977).
Adam H. Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020).
Nick Estes, Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (New York: Verso, 2019).
Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
Freeman Henry Morris Murray, Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A Study in Interpretation (Washington, DC: printed by the author, 1916).
Connor Towne O’Neill, Down Along with That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 2020).
Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America, 2nd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).
Deborah Willis, The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship (New York: New York University Press, 2021).