The United States still has a lot of racism within its borders. That's evident to anyone who's ever tuned into Donald Trump, who has been spewing racially unhinged thoughts for months now, most recently calling for an end of all Muslim immigration to the US. And there's all the racially-motivated violence we've seen in recent months, from the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina to the mistreatment and deaths of countless black people at the hands of police.
But you don't need to look at current events to see examples of our country's racist past and present, you can just look out your window. In many major cities, as well as countless towns, are remnants of the country's racially awful past: monuments, statues, and plaques celebrating notorious murderers of people of color and other vociferous opponents of equality. Except to call them "remnants" is inaccurate because many of these monuments are still up with the support of local residents, town councils, and even state governments.
The supporters of these monuments often use rhetoric about how monuments and other racist symbols like the Confederate flag "celebrate history" rather than celebrating racism, but often these monuments have little to do with historical accuracy: One Confederate monument in Kentucky, for example, has an inscription honoring "Our confederate dead," even though Kentucky fought on the side of the Union.
"It's basically right outside my window," said Benjamin Hufbauer, an art history professor at the University of Louisville who has studied monuments said over the phone. "Even though more people died on the Union side than the Confederate side in this state. But the people who had the money and the power in the 19th century decided to keep it up."
Earlier this month, about 50 activists in New Orleans marched through the French Quarter demanding at least four of the city's monuments to racist leaders of the past come down. They cloaked one statue of a judge who supported segregation in a Klan hood and poured fake blood on another monument that memorializes white supremacists.
New Orleans has perhaps the highest concentration of racist monuments in the country, but there have been protests all over the nation demanding that symbols of the racist past come down—from South Carolina's protests over the Confederate flag outside its statehouse to myriad protests on college campuses over buildings named for problematic leaders.
But what should be done about the monuments once they come down remains less clear: Should they be incinerated, placed in a museum, moved to an area where they can be given appropriate context, surrounded by other reminders of racism?
"What happens if you took the Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans, for example, off its pedestal, left the pedestal there as a reminder, and turned the area into a free speech zone for people to discuss things like racism?" said Kirk Savage, a professor of art and architecture history at the University of Pittsburgh who has written a book on controversial monuments.
There are hundreds if not thousands of them across the country, but some are more ridiculously offensive and controversy-producing than others. The below list of five controversial monuments in the country explains how each public statue came to be and explores the fight to take each one down over objections of Confederate-supporting groups and state governments.
Battle of Liberty Place Memorial – New Orleans
New Orleans has a particularly high concentration of controversial monuments—from a huge statue honoring Confederate Army commander Robert E. Lee at one of the city's busiest intersections to a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis right in the most tourist-y part of town. There's currently a fight being waged by protesters in the city to take the monuments down.
"The amount of racism we live with in New Orleans is insane," said Michael "Quess" Moore, a local artist and activist. "From the police brutality to the way kids are schooled here. These monuments are just signs we've been living under white supremacy for hundreds of years."
The fates of the Davis and Lee statues are yet to be determined: A group has collected over 30,000 signatures in support of keeping them up, as well as two other monuments to the Confederacy.
Perhaps the most shocking one in the city is the Battle of Liberty Place Memorial, an obelisk that commemorates the white supremacists who fought to overthrow Louisiana's government in 1872 after a pro-integration governor came to power, and in the process killed several law enforcement officers. It's an odd statue not just because of its racism but because it's on government property and memorializes an attempted coup of the Louisiana government.
The struggle to take down the monument has been going on for more than 40 years. In the 1970s, Mayor Moon adding a plaque condemning the racial violence symbolized by the memorial. That was deemed insufficient by pretty much everyone and the NAACP called for its full removal. Still, it remained prominently displayed on Canal Street, the city's busiest, until 1989, when it was removed and stored during some street construction. In 1993, David Duke (a former Grand Wizard of the KKK) sued to return the memorial to the city's streets. It now sits tucked behind a parking lot and under some electrical wire, far enough off the beaten path that only those who really want to see it would be able to find it.
Stephen Foster Statue – Pittsburgh
Sitting in one of Pittsburgh's parks, right next to the University of Pittsburgh, this statue memorializes the Pittsburgh-born composer Stephen Foster. It was commissioned in 1900 by a local paper with an editor who imagined Foster, "catching the inspiration for his melodies from the fingers of an old darkey reclining at his feet strumming negro airs upon an old banjo." And that's exactly what the statue shows: an elderly black man playing a banjo at Foster's feet. When the statue was unveiled at the turn of the century, 50,000 people lined up to see it trucked through Pittsburgh and put in place.
Despite several efforts and petitions to remove it, it remains there today.
Nathan Bedford Forrest Monument – Memphis
Nathan Bedford was the original Grand Wizard of the KKK, a slave trader, and mass murderer. He became one of the richest Tennesseans before the Civil War by selling thousands of slaves at his "Negro Mart" in Memphis.
In 1864, during the Civil War, Forrest was a general for the Confederate Army. During one battle, his troops gained the upper hand against a mostly black group of Union soldiers. The Union soldiers surrendered, which should have forced Forrest to take the as prisoners of war. Instead, he directed his troops to murder all 300.
A monument was erected to Forrest in 1905 and has towered over a prominent park in Memphis until today.
"When I look at that statue, I see terrorism, racism and white supremacy," Nick Hicks, a young, black man from Memphis recently told the New York Times. "It is blatant arrogance for it to be put in a public park, in the middle of a city that is majority black."
There's been an effort for some 50 years to remove the statue but an equally powerful counter-movement. The spokesman for the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter told the Times it, "represents what it always has: honor and valor... He was a great community man. He was an inspiration for everyone."
The city finally voted to remove the statue last August, but as of now, it's still standing.
Stone Mountain Park, Georgia
Atop one of the biggest mountains in the south sits the largest high-relief sculpture in the world. It depicts three Confederate generals: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, on horseback. The carving sits 400 feet above the ground and is an astonishing 90 feet tall by 190 feet wide—it's so big that if you were allowed access to it, you could stand inside one of the horse's mouths.
While the mural was begun in 1912, it's far from a historic relic: It wasn't even completed until 1972.
The park where the memorial is located still proudly displays the carving and brings guests by tram to see it. The park's website even references the generals as "heroes."
Stone Mountain is considered the birthplace of the modern KKK, so perhaps it's not so surprising that when the park announced it would be building a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. atop the mountain it caused a huge uproar.
"It's akin to the state flying a Confederate battle flag atop the King Center in Atlanta against the wishes of King supporters," Ray McBerry, the spokesperson for the Georgia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said..
"The proposal to include Dr. King [on Stone Mountain] is simply to confuse black folk about the issues," John Evans, the president of the local NAACP chapter said. "It's an attempt to gain support from blacks to keep these racist and demeaning symbols."
Confederate Memorial of the Wind – I-10 Highway, Orange, Texas
Even though this structure hasn't been completed, it's already offending many local residents. The in-production monument will feature a circle of stone surrounded by Confederate battle flags when it's finished.
The Confederate Memorial of the Wind is being constructed by the local Sons of Confederate Veterans off the intersection of Interstate 10 and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive near the Louisiana border in a town called Orange. Granvel Block, the leader of the group, said the monument is meant to honor history, not slavery.
"So many things (about the Confederacy) have been taught wrong or with a poor skew," he said.
Pretty much every leader in the area thinks the monument is a bad idea. The monument will be built on private land, and therefore there's not much that can be done about it, despite being visible from the public highway.
"I don't like it. I think it's a bad idea," Orange City Attorney John Cash Smith said. "But they own the property, and the First Amendment warrants them that right."
The local paper, the Beaumont Enterprise, put it well: "The last thing Southeast Texas needs is a large memorial to the Confederacy like one proposed along Interstate 10 in Orange. Simply put, it would be divisive and offensive. It would also harm the entire region's image as one of the first things that west-bound travelers along Interstate 10 see when entering Texas."
Edmund Pettus Bridge: There's nothing immediately offensive about this appearance of this bridge in Selma, Alabama, but it has a strange history. It's the bridge Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of protesters walked over on Bloody Sunday in 1965. But it's still named after one of the 19th-century leaders of the KKK in Alabama. There have been several attempts to change the name of the bridge, but it would require a vote by the state's legislature, and the last effort failed to pass the house this year.
Whitesboro Seal: The Village of Whitesboro, New York, has a seal depicting a white guy pushing a Native American to the ground. It's not a monument, per se, but the imagery is still startling. Some say it depicts a wrestling match in which the white founder of Whitesboro, Hugh White, gained respect from local Native Americans by besting his opponent. But, to be perfectly honest, it looks like White is literally choking the Native American man to death, or at least violently shoving him to the ground.
National Statuary Hall: There are monuments to generally bad people all over the country, but it's a bit daunting to think about a gaggle of racist monuments stored near the heart of the nation's capital. The Statuary Hall is a collection of statues donated by states, including depictions of Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, and Popé, a Native American leader from what's now New Mexico who led a revolt against Spanish colonization in the 1600s. Several southern states have decided to donate statues of legendary racists, though, including Jefferson Davis and Charles Brantley Aycock, who ran for governor of North Carolina in the late 19th century on a platform of disenfranchising black voters. Several states have been asked by activists to replace their statues with representations of less terrible people, but these requests have generally been ignored or rejected.
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