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They Took Robert E. Lee Down

Posted by Stacy Reece on

Richmond, Virginia took down its famous statue of Robert E. Lee this week. The man led an army of rebels hell-bent on oppressing and enslaving Black people, and his statue was a monument to that oppression, a symbol of white supremacy.

Still, I had to admit that I felt a little uneasy. I wasn’t sure why I had qualms, but I’m old enough to know that when I have uncomfortable feelings, I should explore them and not ignore them. I expressed my uneasiness to my husband, Chuck Reece, and his response was unequivocal.

“Of course, they should take him down,” he said. “They should have taken him down a long time ago.” Mind you, he was standing in front of me wearing an “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” T-shirt, so there you go.



I’ve been a lazy, small-c conservative for most of my life, which mostly amounted to wanting a government that curbed excessive spending, used reason and logic to make policy decisions and stayed out of my personal life. I adore tradition as long as it doesn’t interfere with what I want to do.

My feelings about the Old South are complex. I grew up in a family that celebrated our ancestors’ participation in the Confederacy. These are ancestors who owned other human beings and fought for the right to keep them. I’ve revered Greek Revival architecture since I was a girl and knew the difference between Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns by the time I was in middle school. I venerated the traditions of grace and gentility of the Old South and mourned the loss of them in the modern day.

But I didn’t understand that the infrastructure to maintain this revered level of charm and hospitality required the oppression of every person with one drop of African blood. Now, as an adult, I can’t look at my beloved antebellum mansions without thinking about the subjugation of so many slaves attached to them.

Now that I and so many others have come to a better understanding of our whitewashed past, there is a justifiable movement to remove the statues that idolize the celebrities of the Civil War. As a child, I loved those kinds of statues for their masterful craftsmanship and how their presence seemed to enhance the public square. As these statues continue to come down, I feel a little sorry for the poor fellows. They were a product of their own day and didn’t know any better than I did growing up.

As a society, we have moved to a place of reckoning such that these statues no longer represent who we are a culture and a people. But I worry that by removing this art, we are robbing ourselves and future generations of the opportunity to make a choice for freedom and equality.

In 2013, the Republican governor of Georgia relocated a statue of a 20th century white supremacist, Tom Watson, from the grounds of the State Capitol. There was not much public debate and very little uproar because he was not “removed”; he was “moved for renovations” off the Capitol grounds and there was “no money” in the budget to reinstall him. It happened over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and he still lives in a nearby park where people who think like him can go to salute him. I thought that move was rather slick, and I got a chuckle out of our governor’s masterful manipulation of public response, because Mr. Watson definitely needed to be put out to pasture.

Even though Mr. Watson was put out to pasture, I am glad that it was a public pasture. I believe the public square should have more art, not less. Furthermore, I wonder if we are missing an opportunity to juxtapose art that communicates the misery and horror of the Black experience in the South in the same setting as statues of the people who oppressed them. What if instead of taking down the statue of General Lee, we surrounded it with art that expressed 400 years of oppression? What if Mr. Watson was surrounded by figures of young Black children suffering under the tyranny of Jim Crow?

I think my thoughts are leaning in this direction because I am frightened about the rise of autocracy, not only in this country but around the world. After Nazi tyranny was vanquished in 1945, the world said, “Never again,” and they meant it. Now, as the last of the veterans of World War II are dying off and there’s no one left to remember its true horror, we see more and more public figures embracing autocracy under the guise of freedom and equality.

I think it is easy for people who love freedom and equality to envision a day when all this racial ugliness is behind us and we no longer have to fear it, like polio or smallpox. We pine for a day when we reach herd immunity, and everyone will just act right because they were raised right. I’m doubtful that day will ever come.

Autocracy and racial supremacy are very seductive because they offer a safety net for those on the dominant side of the power dynamic. It seduced the Germans to persecute the Jews and the British colonists to enslave the Africans. These iniquitous impulses of human nature will always find a footing in human civilization because they feel good and powerful to those who indulge in them. There is no Never Again. There is only Not Today. We maintain freedom and equality with the infinitesimal choices we make every day. Every single one of us is a standard bearer for tyranny or for justice, and every single one of us gets to choose every single day.

Art can uplift, inspire, comfort and educate. It can also challenge us. What if we surrounded the art dedicated to oppressors with art that evoked empathy for the oppressed? Every person who experienced that commingled art would have to make a choice about freedom and equality. They may not understand that they are making a choice, but deep down inside they would have to make a choice about whose side they were on: the oppressor or the oppressed?

Unless we have public art that forces viewers to take a side on that question, we are missing the opportunity to educate future generations about the choices they will have to make in their own day. They will have to choose which impulse to indulge.

They are going to need all the help they can get.

8 comments


  • Thoughtful piece, but here’s some questions to ponder: Are these memorials actually “art”? There is an obvious level of craftmanship involved, sure, but does that make it Art?

    Given its genesis as Lost Cause propaganda, I’d argue that the Lee statues – and its vast array of brethren memoria – serve not as art but more as indoctrination and intimidation. The signifiers of art are present in superficial form, but the intent of the work is something else.

    My 2 cents, anyway. I ain’t one bit sorry to see the old boy go.

    Rob Rushin on

  • Beautifully articulated, Stacy, & I really appreciated your Reader’s responses as well. As a self-proclaimed Social Liberal/Fiscal Conservative, I share your conflict over this issue, and I feel DEEP despair that I can’t find a political party (Left or Right) which represents me adequately. Perhaps I am naive, but I think this sort of “Purple” stance is fairly common at least amongst my peers. I am not African-American; I CANNOT even remotely understand what that particular history fully entails any more than someone who doesn’t share MY history can do either. But I DO CARE deeply and profoundly about people’s lives/opportunities/opinions/freedoms/etc.
    Perhaps I am feeling particularly nostalgic & sentimental on this 9/11, but I know that the answers are to be found in humbly listening to one another with open hearts and minds. Always easier said than done—- it’s much easier to tell people why you think they’re wrong rather than acknowledging why you believe they might be right. As my husband, Allen, is constantly telling me, “God gave us 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason!”

    Carol Lawrence on

  • There are so many mixed emotions welling up inside of me as I read your thoughts and honestly couldn’t bring myself to watch the video portion in it’s entirety. I am Southern. The good Southern as I like to consider it. The Southern that has an appreciation for all of our history, the good and the bad. The Southern who was taught to “act right” which meant to extend respect for all in my path. To honor our heritage because after all that’s where we came from. I guess the part of it all that leaves me saddened is didn’t we learn from our past? Isn’t this the type of monument that helps us all strive for better? To remember from whence we came and have forward thinking on how we can all just get along? I guess I am just sentimental in most of my ways. I would love to hang on to the best parts of what was and enjoy what has come. I love old Savannah, Georgetown SC, Charleston….all of the best of our South. I love mossy oaks and the rivers. I adore cobblestone streets and the flicker of old lanterns, fine china and sweet tea. Can we just have our neighbors over for some of that and love on one another right where we are? My heart breaks at injustices of course but are people not able to see the forest for the trees? We have such an opportunity to love our neighbors and enjoy the moments we have right now. I had so hoped the pandemic would have United us more than divide. It was a time we surely all slowed down to assess what really matters. Thank you for sharing and for all of your thoughts. I am like one of the other responders, maybe I need some more time to think this through completely. My heart is for everyone at the end of the day. One sweet day, my hope is for all to enjoy and have peace. Be blessed! 💕

    Cindy on

  • There are so many mixed emotions welling up inside of me as I read your thoughts and honestly couldn’t bring myself to watch the video portion in it’s entirety. I am Southern. The good Southern as I like to consider it. The Southern that has an appreciation for all of our history, the good and the bad. The Southern who was taught to “act right” which meant to extend respect for all in my path. To honor our heritage because after all that’s where we came from. I guess the part of it all that leaves me saddened is didn’t we learn from our past? Isn’t this the type of monument that helps us all strive for better? To remember from whence we came and have forward thinking on how we can all just get along? I guess I am just sentimental in most of my ways. I would love to hang on to the best parts of what was and enjoy what has come. I love old Savannah, Georgetown SC, Charleston….all of the best of our South. I love mossy oaks and the rivers. I adore cobblestone streets and the flicker of old lanterns, fine china and sweet tea. Can we just have our neighbors over for some of that and love on one another right where we are? My heart breaks at injustices of course but are people not able to see the forest for the trees? We have such an opportunity to love our neighbors and enjoy the moments we have right now. I had so hoped the pandemic would have United us more than divide. It was a time we surely all slowed down to assess what really matters. Thank you for sharing and for all of your thoughts. I am like one of the other responders, maybe I need some more time to think this through completely. My heart is for everyone at the end of the day. One sweet day, my hope is for all to enjoy and have peace. Be blessed! 💕

    Cindy on

  • Hi Stacy, thanks for all you and Chuck do. I enjoyed your thoughtful post, as I, too, have paused over all the statue removals thinking, “Wait, are we missing out on an opportunity to educate while simply sweeping something ugly under a rug?” I lean into the camp of wanting to contextualize the memorials, but I also wonder, is that my white privilege speaking? Would I feel similarly if I were of color, or would I simply want them gone from my sight? For now, I am in favor of removal and storage of these painful artifacts while their community’s members have a chance to digest how they wish to use them to teach the next generation to understand their meaning and impact and how they wish to counter it. As for our local carving on Stone Mountain, I have always thought it an abomination on a beautiful natural resource. I detest that state taxes go to keep it up. I do not wish to see it blasted off but rather left to the elements and eventually erode away covered in moss and lichens like a thing not actively cared for, just as we should not nurture racism, but keep that symbol near as a reminder of past mistakes to not repeat.

    Lori Conway on

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