How Removing Public Monuments Works


How Public Monuments Are Erected and Removed
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.

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