A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Lee Park in Turtle Creek. (Credit: DMHInIrving, Flickr Creative Commons)

History

Removal of Lee Park Statue Will Kick-Start Two Months of Historical Soul Searching

This morning, the council voted to remove the controversial Confederate statue. But what comes next is what really matters.

Editor’s note: The City Council voted 13-1 to pull down the monument and store it away from Lee Park. Councilwoman Sandy Greyson was the lone “no” vote, and Councilman Rickey Callahan voted that he was “present,” neither for nor against. We’ll have a story up soon. Here’s the piece from this morning.

This morning, the Dallas City Council will vote on a resolution to authorize the removal a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Lee Park. Mayor Mike Rawlings believes he has the votes to approve the resolution, which was drafted by three of the African-American members of the Dallas City Council, and which also officially condemns the history of slavery, racism, oppression, exclusion, and disenfranchisement that has dominated the historical experience of African-Americans.

That means that, after the vote, the city manager will remove the statue from the park. The mayor’s new Task Force on Confederate Monuments will begin the process of discussing what will ultimately come of it, as well as what the city will do with the massive Confederate memorial in Pioneer Cemetery, and the many streets, murals, and parks that bear the names and symbols of the Confederacy.

The removal of the Lee statue comes as cities around the southern United States have been removing or covering up Confederate memorials. In Dallas, a group of citizens has been organizing an effort to remove Dallas’ Confederate symbols since earlier this year, and council member Philip Kingston, who has been working with the group, previously drafted a resolution that called for an immediate removal of the monuments. The mayor initially expressed reluctance to the idea of immediately removing the statues, while simultaneously condemning them as “dangerous totems.” That changed, Rawlings says, after the violence in Charlottesville, when a woman was killed by a protester associated with white supremacist groups that were rallying around a statue of Lee in the Virginian city.

“[Removing the statue] was my first inclination after Charlottesville,” Rawlings said. “It wasn’t my first instinct before. My point of view changed.”

Rawlings says what became clear to him after the violence in Virginia was that the Confederate monuments were more than simply historical artifacts.

“I’m a marketing person and there is a term called ‘brand association,’” he says. “Fairly or unfairly, when a Robert E. Lee statue gets associated with Nazi sympathizers, that brand regard goes way into the negative.”

The latest resolution establishes a clear timeline for the task force to complete its deliberations, requesting the new body submit a plan to the council by November 8. That sets up a critical two-month period in which Dallas’ relationship to its own history – and the many figures represent that history – will be put on trial. It is an important moment for a city that has, historically, been more of a mind to re-brand or rewrite its history, rather than confront it.

Starting that process by removing the Lee statue indicates a sincere desire to confront that history meaningfully, but opposition to the move has already begun to surface. Yesterday, a new group calling itself the Dallas Citizens for Unity and Reconciliation— headed by Jane Manning, Pierce Allmän, Henry Tatum, and William Murchison—released results of a survey it paid for that asked 503 registered voters if they would rather see the statue moved or maintained with an additional plaque that offers “the historical perspective of the statue with the addition of privately funded new statues that celebrate the African American community.” The survey found that a majority of those asked favored the compromise, but one can’t help but wonder how Dallas voters would have responded to similar polls about school desegregation or voting rights if they had been conducted during the Civil Rights era.

That’s because, as Wick wrote a few weeks ago and the mayor seems to now perceive, the historical context of these monuments and statues is secondary to the symbolic meaning they now express. There is little merit to the argument that we need to preserve these particular symbols, regardless of any aesthetic or historical relevance, because they are the propagandistic media of a culture that held tight to a worldview in which white supremacy was central. Or, as Kingston said in an interview yesterday: “They are institutional reminders of the institution of racism. I don’t have to look hard to find reminders of the institution of racism.”

All of which makes a second argument made against the removal of the statue voiced by Rick Brettell, the former-director of the Dallas Museum of Art and the Dallas Morning News’ art critic, all the more tone deaf. In an article that appeared over the weekend, Brettell argued that the intention of the Lee monument’s artist, noted 19th century equestrian sculptor Alexander Phimister Proctor, was not to create racist propaganda. Brettell’s point may be supported by the curious irony that Proctor also sculpted the steed beneath a statue of the brutal “scorched earth” Union General William Tecumseh Sherman that sits in Grand Army Plaza in New York.

But as Kay Kallos, the city’s public art program manager, explained to the Task Force on Confederate Monuments during their first meeting last week, the meaning of public art differs from other forms of artistic expression in that it carries with it the intention not only of the artist but also the individuals – and the broader societal impulse – that inspired its commissioning. If Brettell can argue that Proctor was a kindly man out-of-step with the commonplace racial attitudes in which his time was steeped, he would have a more difficult time arguing that those who paid for and organized the installation of the Lee statue felt similarly. And it is those cultural attitudes that allow for the statue in Lee Park – as well as Confederate monuments through this city and the rest of the southern United States – to retain a potency that has been newly coopted by resurgent fascist, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist organizations.

It all goes to highlight the importance of the work the Task Force on Confederate Monuments has in front of them. In speaking with both Rawlings and Kingston, they agree that the issue at hand is not whether the statues should be moved, but how they are to be moved. That process offers a rare opportunity for broad-based civic discussion and education around this city’s racist past.

“I think the passion around history and preservation is in an exciting conversation with racism,” Rawlings said. “And how do you do that? That’s what I think you are going to hear in this group. Will they find the secret formula for racial strife? I don’t think so, but I do believe it is a good avenue for civic discussion.”

The Task Force will meet again this week and will be briefed, at the request of member Sara Mokuria, on the historical context of the Confederate monuments. If done well, that briefing should begin to help people like Brettell, or the educators and artists lining up to support the DCUR, understand that any archaeological or aesthetic merit of the Lee statue, or nostalgic connection to imagined civility, or any of the original intentions of its creation or commissioning, is superseded by the potency of those objects as totems of racial hatred.

The task force should also look to other examples of how to deal with offensive propaganda. This country isn’t the only place that has to have dealt with discarding propaganda. Germany and countries in Eastern Europe have expunged symbols of fascist or communist regimes in various ways. A recent article in the New Yorker talks about India’s decision to deal with massive monuments to British Colonial rule by placing them in a park and allowing them to rot.

“New Delhi had not erased its imperial origins,” the New Yorker author writes. “It had collected painful symbols of it and then allowed their potency to dissolve.”

To this end, the task force should not only seek out historical experts, but also experts in dealing with issues of aesthetic and artistic potency. There are many contemporary artists whose work, writing, and thinking often wrestles with these kinds of issues of meaningful context and potency. Some are active right here in our community – artists like Lauren Woods, Vicki Meek, Rick Lowe, Michael Corris, Cynthia Mulcahy, Carol Zou, Darryl Ratcliff, and others. These are the cultural workers who possess the language and insight to deal with the multifaceted complications that arise when considering how to properly dissolve the potency of propaganda.

The good news, though, is that today’s action by the mayor and council, and the prerogatives set for the task force, indicate that city’s leadership is ready to tackle this heavy task with sincerity, even if that means they will face tough pushback from some of their constituents.

“Someone said to me, ‘all you want to be is politically correct,’” Rawlings said. “I really don’t. All I want to be is correct.”

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