The massacre of nine African-American church-goers by Dylann Roof in Charleston in June 2015, motivated by the desire to generate a race war, and then the events in Charlottesville in August 2017, have brought Confederate memorials and flags to the forefront of public debate once again. Shortly after the attack by Roof, the State of South Carolina — which had adamantly resisted pleas to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from a place on honor on the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol grounds — decided almost immediately that it should be removed. On the other hand, the University of Texas has had a two-year internal struggle over Confederate statuary.
By sheer coincidence, June, 2015, brought the replacement of Bill Powers by Greg Fenves as U.T.’s new president, and almost the first thing that Fenves did was to appoint a Task Force on Historical Representation of Statuary at UT Austin. The statuary in question involved a complex endowed by George Littlefield, a former officer in the Confederate army and the largest single donor to the University of Texas in its early years. In 1916, Littlefield had commissioned Pompeo Coppini to design a memorial that would, in Littlefield’s words, remember Confederate “patriots who gave up their lives for the cause of liberty and self-government.”
Littlefield’s particular rather grandiose vision was not realized, but Coppini did create the Littlefield Fountain. He also carved statues of a variety of public figures, including Confederate generals and Texas leaders particularly admired by Littlefield. As the Task Force wrote, “the memorial was a celebration of a new Southern patriotism in which a neo-Confederate or Southern nationalist approach was posited as the basis of … national unity through principles of white supremacy.” Lest one miss the point, a specific inscription set out Littlefield’s intended narrative to the west of Littlefield Fountain:
For the men and women of the Confederacy who fought with valor and suffered with fortitude that states’ rights be maintained and who, not dismayed by defeat nor discouraged by misrule, builded [sic] from the ruins of a devastating war a greater south. And to the men and women of the nation who gave of their possessions and of their lives that free government be made secure to the peoples of the earth this memorial is dedicated.
An earlier task force (on which I served) had successfully recommended the renaming of a university building named after an ostensibly beloved but now completely obscure University of Texas Law School professor of the early 20th century who had been a principal officer of the Florida Ku Klux Klan (and who gave annual addresses at the Law School commending the Klan’s role in “liberating” the South from those who would truly “reconstruct” it). And earlier presidents who had faced protests about the Littlefield statues, though leaving them in place, avidly supported adding statues of Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and Barbara Jordan to the University’s public landscape in the name of diversity.
The Fenves Task Force set out a variety of options for his consideration. He responded on August 13, 2015, announcing that he was choosing only to move the statues of Jefferson Davis and Woodrow Wilson. He chose to leave the other statues in place, including Robert E. Lee. He offered little by way of a systematic argument, saying only that “Jefferson Davis is in a separate category, and that it is not in the university’s best interest to continue commemorating him on our Main Mall.” Davis is described as having “few ties to Texas,” and his “unique role in the history of the American South . . . is best explained and understood through an educational exhibit” at a new site, the University’s Briscoe Center for American History. Three of the remaining personages honored with statues, including Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, are described as having “had deep ties to Texas.” But then there is Robert E. Lee with a “complicated legacy to Texas and the nation [that] should not be reduced to his role in the Civil War.” Keeping Lee and the others in their place of honor on the Main Campus will ostensibly be “both respectful of the heritage that is important to many and serve as a poignant display of our nation’s and university’s history.”
If a successful solution is defined as something that leaves contending sides equally dissatisfied, then Fenves might have succeeded. But no good reason was presented as to why in the 21st century the University of Texas should be honoring the Virginian Robert E. Lee or preserving Littlefield’s encomia to those he considered as unequivocal heroes because they fought against what he believed was an overbearing national government, even if the offending inscription had been effaced. Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that on August 21, 2017, President Fenves announced that all of the statues would come down, including Lee’s. Indeed, they were removed literally in the middle of the previous night. Three would be taken to the Briscoe Center, where they would join the statue of Jefferson Davis as a suitable subject for scholarly study. The fourth, of former Governor James Stephen Hogg, would probably be relocated to some other public place on campus.
“The historical and cultural significance of the Confederate statues on our campus — and the connections that individuals have with them — are severely compromised by what they symbolize,” wrote Fenves to the entire University community. It was now clear to him that “the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans,” especially for contemporary “white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry.” Such symbols “do not belong on pedestals in the heart of the Forty Acres.” What Fenves now fully acknowledges is that there is nothing innocent about the statues and their placement.
This being America, Fenves’s decision was promptly followed by a lawsuit filed by the Sons of the Confederacy and a relative of Littlefield’s, who claimed in effect that the University had made an irrevocable agreement with Littlefield a century ago to promote the “Southern perspective of American history.” An earlier lawsuit failed with regard to the removal of the Davis statue. There is no greater likelihood of success this time around. It is frivolous to assert that the University, committed above all to intellectual integrity, can be controlled by the dead hand of the past.
What is meant by “Southern perspective” is, of course, the very limited perspective of those whites who cast their lot with the Confederacy, unlike, say, Sam Houston. One doubts that the litigants believe that we should, in 2017, pay more attention to the perspectives of non-white Southerners. The university will no doubt continue to offer all sorts of opportunities to study the “Southern perspective,” including that of secessionists and slaveowners, in a variety of different courses. But that will be very different from the continued embrace of the extremely partial perspective of the Texas of the early 20th century. Colonel Littlefield had distinct political purposes when in effect he captured the central public space of the campus to convey his particular understanding of the Lost Cause. We need not be bound by them today.
This is in fact true of all monuments that are placed on what I have called the “sacred space” of state capitols, state universities, city halls, and the like. They are self-conscious attempts to mold public consciousness, to announce by placement of the statues or the naming of buildings who are our collective “heroes” worthy of admiration and emulation. As regimes change, either suddenly as with revolutions, or more gradually, so do public monuments.
The death of communism in the Soviet Union was signified both by the destruction of certain statues of key figures, but also the renaming of Leningrad, which is now St. Petersburg, just as Stalingrad, the site of one of the epochal battles of World War II, had become Volvograd. In New York City in 1776, a statue of King George III was destroyed and melted down to manufacture bullets that could be used against the King’s soldiers trying to prevent American secession from the British Empire. Alexander Hamilton had originally enrolled in King’s College, but it became Columbia. And so on.
It is unlikely that many of us believe that Russians had some obligation to preserve the statues of Lenin or of Felix Dzerzhinksy, the founder of the notorious KGB. Nor were many heard objecting to the tearing down of a giant statue of Saddam Hussein upon the entry of American troops into Baghdad in 2003. Yet one can also presume that anyone proposing to tear down statues of tyrannical Pharaohs from ancient Egypt would be treated as little better than a barbarian, as was the case with the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.
There is no simple algorithm that tells us what aspects of the past must be preserved and which can be destroyed. What may be especially important, though, with regard to the Confederate statues is that relatively few people advocate their complete destruction. As at UT, the answer may simply be to move them from places of obvious public honor to museums and other venues that establish a more appropriate emotional distance from these relics. Buildings may be more difficult in this regard. Yale was correct, I believe, to change the name of John C. Calhoun College. Calhoun may have been brilliant in his own way, and a key figure in early 19th Century American politics, but he devoted most of his remarkable career to defending slavery and white supremacy. In this he differed dramatically from, say, George Washington and other Founders who indeed owned slaves but were scarcely defined by their commitment to the Old Order.
UT is, at least, well on its way to coming to terms with the past bequeathed it by Colonel Littlefield. That can scarcely be said of the State of Texas, which continues to give pride of place to the statue of Jefferson Davis at the foot of the Capitol grounds. In 2000, then-Governor George W. Bush insisted, while running in the South Carolina primary, that it was not his place as a Texan to opine on what South Carolina should do with the Confederate flag. Not a single reporter had the wit to ask him about the Davis statue or either of the other two Confederate statues on the Capitol grounds. It is time that Texans speak up and explain why a statue put up by the John Bell Hood Camp of United Confederate Veterans in 1903, during the heyday of Jim Crow and lynchings, in order to honor the Lost Cause of establishing a new country devoted to slavery and white supremacy, should continue to dominate the grounds of the Capitol in what we would like to think is a strikingly different Texas. Former Governor Lubbock spoke at the dedication and pronounced himself “delighted to see the grand work of perpetuating the Confederacy….” Governor Lanham agreed, endorsing the “noble cause” that Jefferson Davis had championed. Anyone who believes that that cause was a completely abstract notion of “states’ rights” is delusional. One might in fact give grudging credit to some of the latter-day champions of Confederate statues in forthrightly admitting their devotion to white supremacy even if they are reluctant to embrace a return to chattel slavery.
A great public monument in Boston, across the street on the Boston Common from the Massachusetts Capitol, honors Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment of black soldiers that he commanded. Shaw, who was white, and many of his soldiers died in South Carolina in a famous charge depicted in the movie Glory. The eminent poet Robert Lowell once wrote of this monument as a “fishbone in the city’s throat” insofar as it reminded Bostonians of commitments to racial justice that were scarcely realized. All public monuments have that potential, sometimes by reminding us, like the Shaw monument, of worthy aspirations that are in fact unrealized, other times, like the Confederate monuments, by reminding us instead of truly terrible parts of our “heritage” that we wish to gloss over. The one thing that can be said with certainty is that public monuments will always and everywhere remain a subject of sharp contention at least so long as the societies in which they appear do not share a single vision of their collective past or future and, consequently, the identity of who should serve as our collective heroes — or villains.
Sanford Levinson is a professor at the University of Texas Law School and in Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. He is author of Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies, originally published by the Duke University Press in 1998, a second edition of which, with a new afterword, will be published in 2018.