The police killing of George Floyd sparked widespread protests and reignited efforts across the U.S. to remove Confederate and other statues viewed as symbols of slavery and racism. In several cities, these tributes have been vandalized or torn down by protestors or removed by public officials. A high-profile decision to tear down a famous bronze figure of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va., was halted by a court challenge, which was extended indefinitely on Thursday. A 2018 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center found there are more than 1,700 monuments to the Confederacy still in public spaces. Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian of U.S. slavery, legal scholar, and member of the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, spoke with the Gazette about the issue. Gordon-Reed is a professor of history and the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School. She won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for her explosive 2008 work, “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.”
GAZETTE: In recent years, many have called for the removal of monuments honoring Confederate officials and other controversial figures, such as Christopher Columbus, with mixed results. Does this moment, and these efforts feel different to you?
GORDON-REED: This moment feels different because there’s been a great awakening in the country about police-on-citizen violence. The video of the officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck was so extreme. There have been other videos, of course, but there is something about this image of a prone individual who is not moving and who we know is losing, or has lost, his life — after an encounter that started over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill. Was there no other way to handle that situation?
GAZETTE: As a law professor, what is your view on people unilaterally deciding to pull down statues they find offensive after officials — often enjoined by laws or judicial rulings barring such action — decline to do so? Is there a higher moral cause that supersedes the law?
GORDON-REED: Ha! That’s not fair, asking me as a law professor. OK, actually, that makes it easier. I cannot see myself pulling down a statue in that way. It would be odd for me to condone other people doing something I would not do. I certainly understand the emotion — the passion — particularly if government officials have turned a blind eye to previous petitions from the community.
GAZETTE: What do you say to those who argue that the removal of such statues in prominent public settings dishonors the memory of those who died fighting for the Confederacy?
GORDON-REED: I would say there are other places for that — on battlefields and cemeteries. The Confederates lost the war, the rebellion. The victors, the thousands of soldiers — black and white — in the armed forces of the United States, died to protect this country. I think it dishonors them to celebrate the men who killed them and tried to kill off the American nation. The United States was far from perfect, but the values of the Confederacy, open and unrepentant white supremacy and total disregard for the humanity of black people, to the extent they still exist, have produced tragedy and discord. There is no path to a peaceful and prosperous country without challenging and rejecting that as a basis for our society.
GAZETTE: Many believe that taking the statues down is an attempt to cover up or erase history. Do you agree?
GORDON-REED: No. I don’t. History will still be taught. We will know who Robert E. Lee was. Who Jefferson Davis was. Who Frederick Douglass was. Who Abraham Lincoln was. There are far more dangerous threats to history. Defunding the humanities, cutting history classes and departments. Those are the real threats to history.