Lee must not fall: why statues are a valuable reminder of the past

By Ábel Bede

In 2015 the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement demanded that a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian Era businessman and colonialist, be removed. Protests took place at universities in South Africa and later in the United Kingdom, most famously in Oxford. The debate regarding statues of controversial historical figures recently returned to the public eye, when in early August far-right protesters killed a counter-protester in Charlottesville, during violence following the City Council’s decision  to remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Later the removal of other Confederate statues were announced in cities such as Baltimore, Maryland and Lexington. Meanwhile in an article for The Guardian, Afua Hirsch suggested that the statue of Horatio Nelson should also be removed from London’s Trafalgar Square.

The argument for removing these statues is a simple one. Why should we have memorials of a person who said that territories they wanted to colonise were “inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings”? Someone who thought white people were intellectually and emotionally superior to black people, a person who fought for the Confederacy, or a person who fought to uphold the institution of slave-trade? These not only offend minorities, but stand for everything our society is against.

Yet the statue of Rhodes stayed in Oxford, and it was the right decision. The aforementioned figure,who wrote about the racial superiority of white people, was none other than Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence. Martin Luther King alluded to Jefferson’s “all men are created equal”, but this time meaning all men, and not just white men.

If these statues are removed we are only slowly confirming a narrative that our nation always stood on the right side of history without a question.

Lee and Rhodes are a slightly different matter. The views of Robert Lee regarding slavery are still disputed by historians, but they are irrelevant as he fought for the Confederacy that insisted on slavery so much that it seceded from the United States. And Rhodes is not considered to be a hero as great as Nelson or Jefferson by anyone either. Their statues should remain for a different and maybe even more important reason. They represent something no nations want to admit, the fact that the values they so proudly stand for had to be fought for, against an opposition that came from their own country.

The Confederates were American and Rhodes was British. They both argued for their causes based on their own nations’ values: the states’ rights and the greatness of the British empire. If these statues are removed we are only slowly confirming a narrative (that is unfortunately quite common in History books) that our nation always stood on the right side of history without a question. This in the long run could make us immune to notice evil in our own times as well. The original purpose of these statues may not have been to prevent the emergence of people like they portray, but with a proper education and approach they could be used to benefit our society, just like Martin Luther King reused the “all men are created equal” passage from the Declaration of Independence.

As for the neo-nazis who protested in Charlottesville: their rally was called “Unite the Right”, not “Save the Statue”. They could have found a different excuse to go on the streets. The neo-nazis, and Trump’s failure to condemn them, summon ghosts of the past we resist because we know they are wrong. These statues are the reminder that these evils of history have always been one of us and that they, just like the Confederacy’s slaveholders or Rhodes’ white supremacists can be stopped. If we forget this, their ghosts will haunt us freely in the dark halls of our society.

Photograph: Joe Campbell via Flickr

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