On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, experts talk debates over removal of confederate monuments

Monday, January 18, 2021 - 7:59pm

The Ford School of Public Policy hosted a talk Monday afternoon to discuss the historical and current implications of public monuments.

The Ford School of Public Policy hosted a talk Monday afternoon to discuss the historical and current implications of public monuments. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Nina Molina

As part of the University of Michigan’s Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Symposium, the Ford School of Public Policy hosted a talk Monday afternoon to discuss the national debate over confederate statues and their place on American soil. The event was live streamed on Youtube to an audience of more than 500.

American culture professor Kristin Hass; Mitch Landrieu, former Mayor of New Orleans; and Earl Lewis, founding director of the University’s Center for Social Solutions, were among the speakers at the event. 

Lewis began the discussion by presenting about the Stone Mountain, a sculpture in Georgia known as the Confederate Memorial Carving which depicts Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. 

Landrieu, whose tenure as mayor of New Orleans oversaw the removal of several Confederate monuments around the city, said there is a noted difference between “reverence” and “remembrance.”  

“I happen to think that Stone Mountain, like the monuments in New Orleans to Robert E. Lee and to Jeff Davis, are put up in order to (show) reverence, not (to) remember or contextualize the individuals that were depicted in those monuments,” Landrieu said. 

Landrieu said the monuments serve as both a reminder of the country’s ugly past and the potential for change in the future.

“I think that Dr. King was asking us to not look away,” Landrieu said. “Stone Mountain sits just as an affront. And I think you have to look at that and ask yourself, ‘What does that say about who we are and what does that say about where we're going?’”

Hass said The United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization working to stop the removal of confederate monuments, perpetuates the ideals of white supremacy and racism through these monuments. 

Lewis then asked how the nation’s “mythic history,” which includes the racist and false ideologies spread through school textbooks, became accepted as general knowledge.

“Mythic history … was not just in the South, but in the North and in the West,” Lewis said. “There's a way in which we all agreed on that version of the past … How is it that we came to share in that sense of that past?” 

Christina Olsen, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, moderated the question and answer section. Olsen said museums can help promote anti-racist activism and ideology.

“We can always do better, we can always work harder to see and make visible what often becomes invisible, the stories not told, the people not celebrated, or the fullness of history not well conveyed,” Olsen said. 

Angela Dillard, professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, said these statues were deeply problematic in the 1960s and continue to be today. Dillard said she takes issue with the idea of “monumental history” because it idolizes individuals in historically inaccurate ways.

“Monuments are so static,” Dillard said. “I think that to think about history through the prism of monuments can do us more harm than having overly heroic narratives.”

In place of monuments, Dillard said she finds books and podcasts better able to capture the complexity of historical narratives. 

Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Juan Gonzalez Valdivieso attended the event and said he was intrigued by Hass’ argument about how the construction of Confederate statues was born out of an anxiety among white supremacists that their power could be stripped from them.

Valdivieso said he was impressed that the speakers were critical of the University’s role in perpetuating racist ideology and white supremacy. 

“Everyone's trying to improve their system, trying to be more conscious and move in the right direction,” Valdivieso said. “But, there are plenty of issues still to be done. So, I think that introspection is a constant thing that we need to have.” 

LSA senior Josiah Walker watched the recording of the event and said it made him more aware of how different the history of racism was taught at his middle school as opposed to at the University. 

“It's very obvious to me that (in) the U.S., we erect monuments to celebrate historical figures,” Walker said. “The monuments are decontextualized. The description doesn’t detail the horrors that this person committed. It commemorates that person the same way we commemorate anyone.”

In her concluding remarks, Olsen ended on a note of hope, noting that the country’s leaders can erect new monuments that directly oppose the white supremacist ideals the confederacy stood for.

“What are the monuments we all want?” Olsen said. “What might embody the present that we want or a future we want? I would ask our public, ‘What do you want to make of that future?’ Be Martin Luther King's wonderful, strong legacy both of perseverance and optimism. The future is ours to make.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Nina Molina can be reached at nimolina@umich.edu


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