August 03, 2019
Symbols dedicated to the south’s soldiers have come under debate for not mentioning their roots in racial segregationThe Peace monument in Piedmont Park in Atlanta depicts a Confederate soldier halted by an angel. It was defaced in 2017 after the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Atlantas confederate monuments: how do ‘context markers’ help explain racism?
Photograph: David Goldman/Associated PressAtlanta’s monuments to its Confederate past cannot be taken down by law. But the city is now moving to provide much-needed historical context on the realities of slavery, the civil war and the era of Jim Crow segregation that followed.Homages to Atlanta’s history crop up in many cemeteries and parks. Little context accompanies those stone memorials with engraved plaques referring to “heroic efforts” and the south’s soldiers’ efforts to “unite” the country after the civil war. There is no mention of racism or slavery and segregation.But now, Atlanta is placing four new context markers near some of the statues and monuments that will offer a fuller and more honest accounting of the south’s history and its legacy of slavery and racism.One marker will go up near the 1935-constructed Peachtree Battle Avenue monument, a simple stone engraved memorial commemorating an 1864 civil war battle stressing peace between the north and south. The new additional panel next to it will point out flaws in the monument’s inscription by saying: “[It] describes the United States after the civil war as a perfected nation. This ignores the segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans and others that still existed in 1935.”Another marker, at the Peace monument, built in 1911 in the midst of one of Atlanta’s most popular parks, is a large statue of a Confederate soldier halted by an angel. The original plaque explains how a Confederate-era city militia was on a peace mission to unite America after the civil war. The added marker explains how it excludes 200,000 African Americans who served in the US army.Both monuments stress unity between the north and south in the wake of the civil war, but neither plaque commemorating the Confederacy mentions the reason for the war: pro-slavery southern states advocated for secession, wanting to continue the enslavement of African Americans.Both were erected not during the civil war or shortly after, but during the era of Jim Crow laws, enforcing racial segregation.“There’s a lot of people don’t understand these monuments were not really put up right after the civil war,” Heidi Bierich, the director of the Innocence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, explained. “[Confederate monuments] were assertions of when white people were gaining more power under Jim Crow, or the Klan in the 1920s. So it was a big old, you know: ‘I reject civil rights, I reject black rights.’”Two other monuments in the Oakland cemetery – the Confederate obelisk and the Lion of the Confederacy – will also have markers to contextualize their continued placement on state-owned property. Both are some of the oldest Confederate symbols in the city, with the latter built in 1895 placing an enormous lion statue in the middle of a cemetery of thousands of unmarked Confederate graves. The Confederate obelisk, a looming stone pillar, is the tallest, most prominent focus of the Confederate part of the cemetery.Advocates for these new markers, like Bierich, say the new information panels are more truthful because now visitors won’t see a Confederate monument without having some other narrative.They are necessary because a local political struggle over the fate of the monuments ended with them being protected by law, even as some other southern communities took down their Confederate statues.However, Atlanta’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) president Richard Rose said the city shouldn’t have compromised on the monuments. “You can’t contextualize racism or compromise on racism,” he said, adding that these markers “establish that racism is valid”.In 2017, the city’s then mayor Kasim Reed formed a committee to review street names and city-owned monuments, just months after white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville in protest at the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee. Some of those marching had carried white power symbols as a car smashed into anti-racism protesters, killing Heather Heyer.Though the debate around memorials to Confederate history has continued since the violent rallies in Virginia, the 2015 shooting by Dylann Roof at a black church in South Carolina ignited the debate after the gunman posted pictures with the Confederate flag. South Carolina removed the flag from its statehouse grounds, but kept its monuments.The committee advised that Confederate monuments in Georgia be moved to storage, but a recent law signed by Republican governor Brian Kemp makes it illegal to remove any monument on property owned by the state. The NAACP denounced the law, saying the monuments “glorify treason and a hateful history of black subjugation, reinforced through domestic terrorism”.Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, according to the SPLC, also have similar laws in place to protect Confederate monuments from removal.Of the seven states banning the removal of Confederate monuments, Atlanta is the only city within them to add context via plaques.Sheffield Hale, president and chief executive of the Atlanta History Center, said the markers – paid for in part by the center – help address the issue, but they are not a permanent solution.“I do think it gives [people] a starting point, which is sorely needed right now, in our society, as a way to deal with contentious issues. Let’s argue about the facts, let’s put them down on paper – or on a marker – and have a conversation about them,” he said.The final line to be added alongside the Peace monument is certain to do just that.“This monument should no longer stand as a memorial to white brotherhood; rather, it should be seen as an artifact representing a shared history in which millions of Americans were denied civil and human rights,” it says.But just miles from downtown Atlanta, the largest memorial of the Confederacy in the US still looms over the city with no context and a laser light show highlighting the state’s most visited attraction. That is Stone Mountain, where families picnic under the gaze of a gigantic carving of Confederate leaders.
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