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Confederate Monuments: The History Of Controversial Symbols


Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam says it's time to take down a statue of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee that stands over Richmond, the state's capital. Here he was speaking on this program last week.


RALPH NORTHAM: When one, you know, drives into the city and sees a six-story-tall statue of an individual that fought for slavery, it's just not acceptable anymore.

SHAPIRO: Now a lawsuit seeks to block the governor's order, and a judge has demanded that the statue remain standing for now. Meanwhile, other Confederate statues and landmarks to slavery continue to topple - an obelisk in Birmingham, Ala., a slave auction block in Fredericksburg, Va., and in Richmond, a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis torn to the ground by protesters this week. Joining us now to talk about the history of these controversial symbols is Michael Paul Williams, columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper.


MICHAEL PAUL WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: To start with, this Robert E. Lee statue is the largest of the statues on Richmond's Monument Avenue. It was erected in 1890 after Reconstruction. Can you just describe the symbolism behind the statue then and now?

WILLIAMS: Well, put yourself in the shoes of a newly emancipated black person in Richmond some 25 years after emancipation, and you see this massive monument going up. It's hard not to imagine that those individuals were not filled with terror at what they were witnessing. It sent a clear message.

SHAPIRO: And what would you say it stands for today?

WILLIAMS: I think it stands for pretty much the same message it stood for in 1890. It's white supremacy.

SHAPIRO: As somebody who's been writing about and pushing for this for years, does this moment that we are in now feel inevitable to you, or does it feel like something that you thought might never come?

WILLIAMS: It kind of feels like a dream. You wonder if it's really happening. For so long, people did not listen. For so long, people were unmoved. And then something horrible happens in a city a half a continent away, and everyone's moving, and everyone's feeling what you felt.

SHAPIRO: Could you speak to a listener who might not have thought deeply about this and might think, why remove the history? The statue has been there for decades. Why tear it down?

WILLIAMS: You tear it down because it should not have been there in the first place. I would challenge that person to cite any example anywhere in the globe where a nascent nation rose up in opposition to the existing one with soldiers who were sworn to be U.S. soldiers effectively committing treason, turning against their own, killing U.S. soldiers all in defense of enslavement of black human beings. And then 25 years after the war, when you would think the issue is settled - and by the way, against the advice of General Robert E. Lee, who did not want monuments - they erect these statues to not so much tell history - it's not history - but to erect massive bronze and granite statues of propaganda to effectively try to gaslight us into believing this was something other than what we all knew it was, which was a war to defend the right to enslave.

The symbolism has bled into reality, and they've done wonders to help perpetuate the white supremacy that continues to plague this nation and manifest itself in the death of George Floyd. If this nation's ever going to be whole, if it's ever going to heal, you've got to get rid of this cancer. And these monuments are a cancer in America's body politic.

SHAPIRO: Do you have a vision of what would take the place of these monuments to the Confederacy on these now empty pedestals?

WILLIAMS: They could be monuments to reconciliation. They could be monuments to the African American struggle, which until recent years was not told in statuary. They could be visions of where we want to be instead of celebrations of what we never should have been.

SHAPIRO: Michael Paul Williams is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Thank you for talking with us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MULTA NOX'S "A PEARL ON THE BACK OF THE LID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.