What kind of monuments do we deserve?

William Sturkey, Daphne Chamberlain, Richard Lou and Patrick Weems

By Christopher Young, 

Contributing Writer,

A deeply thoughtful panel discussion entitled, ‘What kind of monuments do we deserve?’, was held at The Two Museums May 4, 2023. The forum was brought to Jackson by the Zócalo Public Square, an Arizona State University Media Enterprise in partnership with The Mellon Foundation.

Zócalo Public Square was founded in 2003 in Los Angeles, and its mission is to connect people to ideas and to each other by examining essential questions in an accessible, broad-minded and democratic spirit. This program is the second in a two-year event and editorial series, ‘How should societies remember their sins?’

“At a time when our country’s public sphere and our global digital conversation have become ever more polarized and segregated, Zócalo seeks to create a welcoming intellectual space to engage a new and diverse generation in the public square.” (zocalopublicsquare.org). 

The panelists consisted of civil rights historian Daphne Chamberlain, who currently serves as associate professor of History and the Brown University-Tougaloo College Partnership Program director; visual and performance artist Richard Lou, who is the chair of the Department of Art at University of Memphis; and Patrick Weems, executive director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center and a Monument Lab Fellow. Moderator for the discussion was William Sturkey, associate professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill, and the author of Hattiesburg – An American City in Black and White, published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019.

Panelists were asked to respond to questions from the moderator as well as audience members both in person and online, as the event was live streamed on YouTube and was recorded by several high-profile media outlets. 

Thought-provoking questions included: What exactly are monuments and what do they mean in our society today? Is there a difference between monuments and memorials or cemeteries? And if so, what are the functional differences? Why is the discussion about monuments so emotional and politically charged given the silence on this subject? What is to be made of this and what message does it send to our children? What would our country, region, or state look like if we had monuments that were not protected by removal laws? And, what if we had monuments that every student wanted to visit?

Panelists posing after the event. Photos By Chris Young

There was, of course, ample discussion about Mississippi, but there was also a broader, more national focus. According to data gathered by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as provided to Newsweek magazine, 202 Confederate monuments and symbols have been brought down since the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

On September 8, 2021, when the 12-ton statue of General Robert E. Lee was brought down in Richmond, Virginia, then-Governor Ralph Northam was quoted by Newsweek as saying, “This was a long time coming, part of the healing process so Virginia can move forward and be a welcoming state with inclusiveness and diversity. Any remnant like this that glorifies the lost cause of the Civil War, it needs to come down.”

Newsweek went on to report that in 2021 alone, a total of 51 Confederate symbols had been relocated, renamed or removed from public spaces. This figure includes 11 monuments and 40 memorials. The SPLC also recorded 31 symbols that faced pending removals. However, as experienced during the fight to remove Lee’s monument, dismantling these symbols of the confederacy comes with challenges. A Mississippi law dating back to 1972 preserves Confederate monuments. 

Lecia Brooks, SPLC’s Chief of Staff in Montgomery, Alabama, said, “these monuments were erected after the [civil] war to “repair and romanticize” the Confederacy’s participation in the war and to push back against the fact that the government fought to continue the enslavement of African Americans. As these monuments became engrained within the local landscape and culture, more white southerners tied their heritage to them.”

In its publication, Whose Heritage? (Third Edition, February 2022), the SPLC identified 377 Confederate memorials that have been removed since 2015. On June 17, 2015, a white supremacist murdered nine black people at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

In summing up the panel discussion, a member of the in-person audience asked, “If you could look ten years into the future, could you propose a new monument in Mississippi that does not currently exist? And what message would you want that monument to tell a visitor?” Moderator Sturkey responded, “In 1860 the number of enslaved people outnumbered the number of white people in this state (Mississippi) by over 80,000. Everywhere you look there are confederate monuments, but nothing that acknowledges their existence. So, it would be something that is big and important, and it said that these people lived here and that they mattered.” This comment was greeted with the loudest applause of the night.

The question remains, “What will public memory look like in the 21st century, and how might future generations experience the act of looking back?” 

This event can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghBMX3tloaI. 

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