On Monday night, protesters in Durham, North Carolina triumphantly pulled down a statue of a unnamed Confederate soldier. The first protester to be arrested — Takiyah Thompson, who climbed a ladder and put a rope around the statue before a crowd took it down — was taken into custody by Durham County deputies on Tuesday and charged with felony inciting others to riot, among other charges; on Wednesday morning, two others were taken into custody. Already, however, their actions are reverberating throughout the country, showing that not only does direct action work, but that it’s sometimes a courageous and moral act to be a lawbreaker.
Like most Confederate memorials around the country, the statue that Thompson helped take down was not erected in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War; it went up in 1924. For context, North Carolina’s governor at the time, Cameron Morrison, had been a leader of the “Red Shirts,” a white supremacist paramilitary group that intimidated African-Americans and white Republican and Populist allies from voting in the late nineteenth century. By some estimates, the Red Shirts massacred hundreds in Wilmington in 1898, and their reign of terror helped to usher in six-plus decades of Jim Crow.
In 2015, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill that blocked “removing, relocating, or altering monuments, memorials, plaques and other markers that are on public property” without approval from a state historical commission, thus taking the decision whether or not to remove any of North Carolina’s 140-plus monuments to the Confederacy out of the hands of progressive local governments like Durham. The bill was passed in the other chamber on partisan lines just a month after Dylann Roof murdered nine African-Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and then-governor Pat McCrory signed it into law. At the time, one North Carolina Republican said taking down monuments was “the kind of thing that ISIS does.”
In the immediate aftermath of the statue coming down on Monday, officials denounced the action. “I am grateful the events that unfolded Monday evening did not result in serious injury or the loss of life,” Sheriff Mike Andrews said in a statement, “but the planned demonstration should serve as a sobering example of the price we all pay when civil disobedience is no longer civil.” Meanwhile, Democratic governor Roy Cooper issued an initial weak-kneed statement on Twitter: “The racism and deadly violence in Charlottesville is unacceptable but there is a better way to remove these monuments.”
But since the removal of the statue in Durham, the activists pushed a reluctant governor to action. On Tuesday, Cooper elaborated on his statement by calling for North Carolina’s monuments to come down. “We cannot continue to glorify a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery,” he wrote in a Medium post. In addition to proposing actions to begin removing the monuments, Cooper also called on the legislature to kill a bill shielding drivers from civil liabilities if they hit protesters. (Republicans say they have “no plans” to advance the legislation.)
Since the removal of the statue in Durham, activists pushed a reluctant governor to action.
What happened in Durham seems to have had both an indirect and a direct impact on the fates of other racist statues. Baltimore removed its four Confederate monuments early Wednesday morning after a Monday night city council vote, and a cemetery in Hollywood announced “plans to remove” monuments erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Hollywood after a change.org petition that started after Charlottesville.
In addition, Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney agreed with councilmember Helen Gym that now is a “good time” to talk about the statue of Frank Rizzo, the city’s infamously racist and homophobic mayor who dominated the city’s politics in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In an interview with Billy Penn, Gym specifically credited the events in Durham with being a motivating factor in her call for the removal of the statue. And on Wednesday, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner responded to calls to remove a Confederate monument. “I think we should review our inventory and then make the most appropriate decision that’s in the best interest of our city, and does not glorify things we shouldn’t be glorifying,” he said.
Naturally, conservatives have been pushing back against this seeming progress by trotting out a predictable set of talking points: that the Durham protesters were in the wrong because they were breaking the law, and that tearing down monuments and historical markers is an erasure of history. The first argument shows historical illiteracy and a child’s understanding of what it means to do the right thing, and the second showcases the nonchalant treatment that the right wing gives America’s history of oppression.
Setting aside that this standard calls the Confederacy itself into question — “If the [secessionist states] break from this they can only do so against law and by revolution,” Lincoln told Congress in 1861 — the “lawbreaker” argument was applied to civil rights activists in the ‘50s and ‘60s. During the Civil Rights movement, direct challenges to the South’s racial hierarchy, like Rosa’ Parks and the Woolworth lunch counter sit-in, were violations of segregationist laws, and put human faces on the humiliation and the brutality of Jim Crow.
It can’t be said enough that the only reason Jim Crow ultimately ended is because people broke the law. The fearless actions of activists forced the hand of reluctant moderates; without them, Jim Crow likely would have survived for many more years.
More subtle conservatives have argued that tearing down the monuments is an erasure of history. “Good point from a friend in an email. This tearing down statues is a cultural revolution of sorts & a small step from statues to actual people,” right-wing commentator Erick Erickson tweeted.
The idea that removing a monument would ultimately result in the removal of the Civil War from our collective national memory is disingenuous.
Erickson could not, when challenged, actually illustrate the difference between why what happened in Durham is worse than Ukrainians tearing down Lenin statues after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, or Marines toppling of a monument to Saddam Hussein at Firdaus Square in Baghdad in 2003. Aside from the fact that neither Lenin nor Hussein ever enslaved Americans, there is no difference.
Monuments to the Confederacy are being torn down precisely because protesters rightly felt that they don’t — or shouldn’t, anyway — represent America anymore. The removal of monuments doesn’t just eliminate a physical reminder of what we have been in the past; it reduces the status of Confederate officers from stoic heroes of the Lost Cause to faceless members and pawns of the slave-owning class, which is what they deserve to be.
Furthermore, the idea that removing a monument would ultimately result in the removal of the Civil War from our collective national memory is disingenuous. It is, perhaps, the most important event in American history, and Americans – particularly black Americans – are still living with the effects of its conclusion to this day. As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote in an essay regarding the upcoming HBO series Confederate: “African Americans do not need science-fiction, or really any fiction, to tell them that ‘history is still with us.’ It’s right outside our door. It’s in our politics. It’s on our networks.”
Rather, the argument that removing statues erases history has more to do with what the history represents. Erickson interestingly has no qualms about the erasure of history in the former USSR – maybe because he would prefer a world where socialism was forgotten, or more damningly, he thinks the Confederacy and Jim Crow were less evil. But what right-wingers claim the Confederacy represented (states’ rights) and what it actually did represent (the defense of white supremacy) both still very much exist in conservative politics today.
Now that we have Confederacy apologists littering state governments and white supremacists in the White House, it’s a safe bet that historical revisionism at the highest levels of power in this country will not end anytime soon. And that is precisely why, when it comes to destroying shrines to the Confederacy in 2017, to be a lawbreaker like Takiyah Thompson is nothing short of heroic.