The first monument to fall was that of Vladimir Lenin. It was demolished on Aug. 1, 1990, in the former Soviet Union. The statue was toppled with ropes by protesters. The ponderous monument fell with a mighty thud that resonated around the globe.
It was just the beginning. Soon over 2,000 statues and monuments of Lenin were removed. The eradication of Lenin images from Soviet public squares was a clear manifestation of a shift in power.
Today, likenesses of leaders of the Confederate states are similarly being expelled from our public places. Often, these images of Confederate leaders are being removed by formal, administrative procedures. In other cases, protesters have taken matters, and ropes, into their own hands. It is an extirpation that has resonated around the globe.
Defenders of the status quo argue that these removals are efforts to “erase history.” That is not true. References to Dixieland will always be found in history books, novels, plays, movies, museums, photographs, articles and on private property.
Many people only care about history when a Confederate statue is about to bite the dust. Some have such a visceral reaction in opposition that they take to the streets armed with torches, pitchforks and assault rifles. All in a putative effort to “protect history.”
Their belligerent actions appear to emanate from an atavistic fear. Perhaps they fear losing control of “their country” and its white power symbols. In our emotional responses to visible change, we tend to focus obsessively on the particular inciting incident and thus we cannot see the forest for the trees.
However, when we view the removal of Confederate images from our public squares through an historical lens there is but one inescapable conclusion: Who gets honored in our public places is about power, not history. It is equally clear that America is in the crucible of a palpable shift of power. Who gets honored in our public squares is a litmus test for a shift in power.
The vast majority of these monuments and statues were erected during the 1890-1920 time frame. State legislatures and city councils were overwhelmingly white. People of color and women were disenfranchised and their rights and representation in the halls of power were acutely abridged.
Thus, their voice was silenced at a time when these decisions were being made. Worse yet, these shrines to slavery were often strategically placed next to our courthouses. Their looming presence was designed to intimidate people of color and keep them oppressed. The American promise of full equality was thus aborted.
America’s foundational commitment to the divine principle that “All Men Are Created Equal” has been elevated considerably since then. Through much blood, sweat and toil, women and people of color have achieved a more prominent voice in the affairs of state. A power shift has occurred and with it a new perspective.
As a Native American, I have long been appalled at America’s ubiquitous honoring of Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s ethnic cleansing forced my people (Creek/Chickasaw/Cherokee) from our ancestral homelands to Indian Territory. Thousands died before, during and immediately after the Trail of Tears. How can the architect of a Native Holocaust be so venerated? His image more appropriately belongs in a museum alongside that of Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Mao and Lenin. Not on our public grounds or the $20 bill.
Who gets honored in our public squares is about power, not history. As these tainted symbols are dismantled, new ones are sure to appear. What these images might look like will be determined by a new power which speaks with a racially diverse voice.
I am confident that the new public images will no longer engender the divisiveness of Confederate monuments. Hopefully, they will be reflective of the best of American values and its magnificent diversity. In that, I am increasingly convinced that America’s best days lie ahead.
J.D. Colbert is president of Holisso Hakv Inc., a banking and financial consulting firm.