How Removing Public Monuments Works

By: Dave Roos  | 
protests in Richmond
People gather around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, on June 4, 2020, amid continued protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody. RYAN M. KELLY/AFP via Getty Images

In Richmond, Virginia, in June 2020, during protests against police brutality and racism, demonstrators spray-painted the base of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee with epithets and slogans like "Black Lives Matter", "Blood On Your Hands" and "Stop White Supremacy." These were sparked by the May 2020, death of George Floyd while in police custody. The city's mayor agreed to take down this and other Confederate monuments by July 1, 2020, saying "Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy. It is filled with diversity and love for all, and we need to demonstrate that," according to The Guardian.

The movement to pull down public Confederate monuments, which began in 2017, has been picking up steam. In the spring and summer of 2017, construction crews hired by the cities of Baltimore, Maryland and New Orleans wrapped heavy straps around the bronze chests of towering sculptures of confederate icons Lee, Confederate States President Jefferson Davis, Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard.


Working under the cover of darkness to avoid crowds of protesters (there were death threats), the crews used cranes to lift the monuments from their pedestals and load them onto flatbed trucks. The statues were shipped off to warehouses, where they would remain out of sight until the cities could find appropriate places — if any — to resettle them.

Taking down public monuments like these is no small decision. In these cases, the removal of the Confederate monuments was sparked by the June 2015 murder of nine black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by an avowed white supremacist claiming allegiance to the Confederate battle flag.

Immediately following the Charleston attack, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for the city council to convene a task force on the removal of the city's Confederate monuments [source: Wendland]. The same thing happened in Baltimore, where former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake assembled a panel of historians and activists to decide the fate of its monuments [source: Campbell].

In both cases, the city councils voted to remove the Confederate statues, ruling that they were offensive to the two cities' majority African-American residents and flashpoints for violence.

But many monuments to the Confederacy still stand in American cities. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are more than 1,700 statues, flags, plaques, city and county names, street names, holidays and even military bases named for Confederate generals, or otherwise dedicated to honoring and celebrating the Confederate cause. Some 780 of these are monuments. Only 114 Confederate symbols have been removed since the Charleston attack.

Supporters of these Confederate monuments argue that removing them is akin to erasing or rewriting history, and wonder which other historical figures will fall victim to modern readings of morality. Founding Father and third POTUS Thomas Jefferson kept slaves at Monticello. Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of the Americas led to savage oppression of the New World's native inhabitants.

The decision of whether or not to remove a public monument is really a question of what public monuments represent. Are they bygone products of a distant time and place, or timeless reminders of our core values and beliefs? When our values change, should our public monuments change with them? Are monuments an important way of chronicling a nation's history, both the good and the regrettable? Or do they chiefly serve to chronicle only the history that a small group of people — typically the wealthy and powerful — want to preserve?

Before we dive into the history and controversies surrounding the removal of public monuments, let's take a swing at that first question — what do public monuments really represent?

What Public Monuments Represent

Lincoln Memorial
Visitors are dwarfed by the 189.7-foot (57.8-meter) high Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The monument, on which construction began in 1915, was built to resemble a Greek temple and to pay tribute to Abraham Lincoln's towering legacy. EMILIE SOMMER/AFP/Getty Images

Public monuments don't emerge out of thin air. They are the products of collective human efforts — often expensive and time-consuming — to honor a person, a group of people or a historical event. Throughout history, public monuments have been erected by ruthless dictators, private historical societies, wealthy philanthropists and city park planners. In each case, the monuments were erected with specific intentions and designed to convey a clear message to all who see them.

At some levels, all public monuments are statements of power. In ancient Egypt, the pharaohs erected pyramids and obelisks as permanent symbols of their immense power and eternal influence. In communist regimes, colossal statues of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Kim Il Sung are towering reminders of the central government's unquestionable authority.


But you can also argue that public monuments to dedicated to women, civil rights leaders, victims of genocide and martyrs to valiant causes are also statements of power. By acknowledging the achievements and sacrifices of historically less powerful groups, these monuments are ways of taking power from their oppressors and (literally) carving their rightful place in history.

Public monuments also are often public memorials. These serve to venerate and mourn a fallen hero, and they come in all shapes and sizes. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. portrays a larger-than-life President Abraham Lincoln carved in stone, seated within a large, Greek temple. It's meant to memorialize the grandeur of the man and his towering legacy as the preserver of the Union.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, on the other hand, is an entirely different kind of public monument. It uses stark simplicity — a black, semi-reflective wall etched with names — to honor and mourn the sacrifice of the nearly 60,000 American men and women who died in the Vietnam War.

In the United States, monument-making didn't become a widespread activity until after the Civil War, when cities established the first committees to beautify public spaces and commission works of art that would venerate historical figures and convey universal values [source: Farber].

However, many of the country's public monuments were dreamed up and funded by private citizens. Wealthy individuals have typically enjoyed close relationships with local politicians, making it far easier to exert their influence on matters like public works of art. In Charlottesville, Va., for example, the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee at the center of that city's monument controversy was commissioned by wealthy philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire in 1917. He also bought the surrounding land and donated it to the city as a (whites-only) park [source: Schragger].

Because individuals have traditionally exerted so much control over the commissioning of monuments — whether those individuals are powerful political leaders or wealthy private citizens — it's important to recognize that the monuments they create represent a very narrow historical record. Even in cases where monuments are approved by city commissions, that doesn't mean that they reflect the history and values of the entire community. They simply reflect the history and values of the people who were in charge at the time. History, as the old adage goes, is written by the winners.

How Public Monuments Are Erected and Removed

alt-right, Robert E. Lee
A small group of neo-Nazis and members of the 'alt-right' face off with Virginia state police in front of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee after the 'Unite the Right' rally was declared an unlawful gathering, Aug. 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Nowadays, most U.S. cities have some kind of commission responsible for approving monuments. For instance, the city of Savannah, Georgia has a Historic Site and Monument Commission that meets monthly to look at applications for public monuments. Meetings are open to the public.

The city of Charlotte, North Carolina has a nine-page application for anyone wishing to propose a public monument. Among the criteria spelled out for consideration are the following:


  • "(1) The monument shall have historic, aesthetic or special character or interest to the general public and shall not be limited in interest to a special group or persons ...
  • (2) The monument's location shall be compatible with its surroundings, and its establishment shall not have a negative impact on environmental integrity ...
  • (3) The monument must be of enduring quality and character, and materials used ... shall reflect such quality and character.
  • (4) The care and maintenance of the monument shall not require a disproportionate expenditure of public funds."

Since these types of commissions are relatively new (most established in the 1990s or later), many older monuments exist that may not have full public support — and perhaps never did. Which brings us to the issue of removing them. In the U.S., the decision to remove a public monument is made by the governing body that owns the public land where the monument stands. If that's on state-owned land, the decision would be made by the state legislature. If it's on city land, the vote would fall to the members of the city council. In smaller towns and rural counties, the decision to remove a public monument rests with the county commissions or a board of supervisors.

Governors, mayors and county executives do not have the authority alone to order the removal of a public monuments. However, they can use their political and administrative influence to organize task forces and direct the work of city councils and commissions. In some cases, like the removal of the Confederate battle flag from outside the South Carolina state house in 2015, then-governor Nikki Haley had to sign a monument-removal bill passed by the state legislature [source: Brumfield].

City council and legislative bodies have broad leeway in deciding why to remove a public monument. The statue or memorial might be in the way of a new public works or urban development project. It may have fallen into disrepair and would cost more to fix than to replace. Or in the case of the "scary" Lucille Ball statue in a small New York town, the monument was removed and replaced simply because it was ugly [source: The Hollywood Reporter].

In New Orleans, the city council mulled over three potential reasons for removing four public monuments with ties to the Confederacy: 1) whether the monuments violated the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution by promoting the supremacy of one race over another; 2) whether they had become sites of violent demonstrations; or 3) whether the cost of maintaining or providing security at the monuments was "unjustified" given the historical significance (or insignificance) of the statues.

The only thing that can prevent a city council or other local legislative body from freely removing a public monument is if the state prohibits it. In many states, local governments derive their power from the state government [source: Dinielli]. And even cities and municipalities with independent "Home Rule" charters cannot pass ordinances that are in direct violation of state law [source: Russell].

Several states, for example, have laws that forbid the removal of public monuments commemorating any war or battle, including the Civil War. Alabama's law, known as the "Alabama Memorial Preservation Act," was passed in 2017 in direct response to a nationwide push to remove Confederate war monuments [source: Sterling]. The Alabama state law bars local governments from removing or renaming any war monuments that's been on public land for more than 40 years.

Monuments on private land, however, aren't subject to laws protecting or removing public monuments. Monuments on the campuses of private colleges or on land that's part of a private park or estate can only be removed by the owners of the property.

Over the course of world history, groups of citizens have torn down public monuments in times of political upheaval, without the official blessing of any city council or state legislature. Next, we'll look at the long history of tearing down public monuments.

History of Removing Public Monuments

Ukrainians destroy statue of Lenin
Anti-government protesters use a sledgehammer to destroy a statue of Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin on Dec. 8, 2013 in Kiev, Ukraine. Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

An "iconoclast" is literally someone who breaks or tears down monuments or images of false gods, and iconoclasts have existed across the ages in all cultures.

In America, one of the opening acts of the Revolutionary War was to pull down a gilded lead statue of King George III in Manhattan. A crowd of soldiers and citizens toppled the statue on July 9, 1776 after hearing one of the first public readings of the Declaration of Independence [source: Dunlap]. In a symbolic twist, the statue was melted into 42,088 bullets that were then fired against British troops [source: D'Costa].


Invading armies have a long and sordid history of destroying monuments of conquered civilizations. The Spanish razed Aztec and other indigenous temples in the Americas so that Catholic cathedrals could be erected in their place. And in the 2010s, both Taliban and Islamic State soldiers have specifically targeted and destroyed priceless Middle Eastern antiquities including two giant statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Afghanistan [source: Crossette].

Revolutions and regime changes are also popular times to tear down monuments. During the short-lived 1956 Hungarian Uprising against Soviet rule, a crowd of revolutionaries in Budapest toppled a goliath bronze statue of Joseph Stalin. As communism spread across Eastern Europe and even to far-flung locations like Ethiopia, so did monuments dedicated to Vladimir Lenin. Many of these statues have since been torn down — including one in Ethiopia, using pickaxes — when communist regimes have fallen [source: Fortin].

Statues cast in the likenesses of dictators like Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq were also pulled down and dismantled as the real-life strongmen fled into hiding [source: Fortin].

Cultural shifts can also spark the removal of monuments, as we're seeing with the Confederate monument controversy in the United States. The same thing has happened in various Latin American countries, where monuments to Christopher Columbus, previously venerated as a heroic explorer, have been removed for their imperialistic overtones. In 2004, protesters in Caracas, Venezuela, pulled down a bronze statue of Columbus, which the city eventually replaced with a monument to Guaicaipuro, an indigenous chief who tried to fight off the Spanish [source: Fortin].

Legal Arguments for Removing Confederate Monuments

Confederate Women of Maryland removed
Workers remove a monument dedicated to the Confederate Women of Maryland in Baltimore in August 2017. Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty Images

From Florida to Maryland to Montana, public monuments to the Confederacy were removed by cities large and small across America in 2017. But in a handful of states (Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia) it remains illegal to remove or alter any statue or plaque or street name dedicated to Confederate generals, soldiers or political leaders. This is significant because more than 300 of the 780 monuments and statues to the Confederacy in the U.S. are found in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia alone [source: SPLC].

Civil rights groups believe that there are some legal arguments that could override the state bans. One of the most promising legal tactics is to claim that Confederate monuments on public land are a violation of the Equal Protection clause in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. In essence, the constitutional argument against Confederate monuments is that they were erected as expressions of white supremacy, and that their continued existence is a form of state-supported racism. Confederate monuments on public land make black people feel unequal in the eyes of the state, that they are second-class citizens.


The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868 to grant citizenship and equal rights to former slaves, but has never successfully been used to remove a Confederate monument. There have been some high-profile rulings related to religious monuments on public land like the Ten Commandments or Nativity displays. In those cases, the monuments have been removed on the grounds that they violate the Establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits state-sponsored religion, not the Equal Protection clause.

The Equal Protection argument for removing Confederate monuments hinges on the prosecution's ability to argue that the intended message of Confederate statues is one of white supremacy. Extensive research by the Southern Poverty Law Center has shown that the majority of Confederate monuments were erected in two distinct periods: the early Jim Crow era (1890s to 1920s) and the heart of the Civil Rights era (1955 to 1965) [source: SPLC].

During the Jim Crow era, the hard-won rights afforded to black Southerners during the Reconstruction period — voting, land ownership, integrated schools — were repealed and segregation became the law of the land in the South. Historians argue that Confederate monuments erected during that period were meant to impress upon black southerners that no matter outcome of the Civil War, they were still under white control. Same for monuments erected during the Civil Rights era, when activists were fighting to end Jim Crow for good.

To defend Confederate monuments, supporters turn to something called the "Lost Cause" narrative. The Civil War, in the minds of some Southerners, was really the "War of Northern Aggression." The men who fought and died on the side of the Confederacy weren't fighting for slavery, but merely protecting their families' freedom and their rights to independence from an overreaching central government. Groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy have commissioned monuments of fallen Confederate soldiers and their weeping wives to promote this cause.

To make the Equal Protection argument stick, prosecutors would have to convince a judge that the Lost Cause narrative is a myth and that the "states' rights" that noble Southerners were fighting to protect was namely the right to own slaves. In this light, all monuments honoring or celebrating the Confederacy are honoring and celebrating a disastrous effort to enslave a race of people.

Originally Published: Jan 8, 2018

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Author's Note: How Removing Public Monuments Works

Researching this story, I spoke with Paul Farber at the Monument Lab in Philadelphia. Farber has commissioned a diverse panel of artists to reimagine what public monuments should look like in 2017. Their prototype monuments include an oversized afro pick stuck into a Philadelphia sidewalk, and two opposing pedestals inscribed with the word "Me" that passers-by can ascend and face off. Historical monuments have their place, but there are also new chapters of history to write and new voices to hear.

Related Articles

More Great Links

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