On July 9, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read aloud on the streets of New York for the first time.
The giddy soldiers and citizenry responded by marching to a Manhattan park and pulling down a gilded, lead statue of King George III on horseback.
There are two lessons here. First, we Americans have always edited the history erected in our public spaces. Secondly, one must be very careful when one does so.
For no matter what Karl Marx or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says, neither history nor progress travel in a straight line. The British quickly chased George Washington and his boys out of town and occupied New York for the duration.
One imagines that the deposed statue made for an awkward topic at cocktail parties.
On Tuesday morning, in a Twitter barrage that reminded us of someone else, state Rep. Stacey Abrams of Atlanta, a Democratic candidate for governor, declared that the time had come to erase the Confederate carving of Robert E. Lee, Jeff Davis and Stonewall Jackson from Stone Mountain.
“We must never celebrate those who defended slavery and tried to destroy the Union,” she tweeted.
Despite the fatal melee in Charlottesville, her demand caught most Georgia Democrats off guard. Older ones probably winced more than younger ones.
Abram’s history was a bit off. The granite bas relief, an object of fits and starts, wasn’t carved in 1915, but in the period from the late ‘50s until 1972, when it was declared complete. Yet the mountain was indeed the birthplace of the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan at the turn of the 20th century. It is now a Confederate memorial in an overwhelmingly African-American neighborhood.
History buffs love their field because it isn’t paleontology. History isn’t a fossil. It’s a living thing that changes according to when it’s told, who tells it, and who’s listening. Admittedly, this can confuse a Gwinnett County magistrate here and there.
But the ever-changing nature of history is precisely what requires a certain amount of diplomacy. Especially in the South, the history we erect in public spaces shifts according to geography and political power.
For instance, this fall, the Atlanta History Center will reveal a restored Cyclorama, a mural-in-the-round that features the Battle of Atlanta. Last week, history center CEO Sheffield Hale assured Buckhead business leaders that the 19th century painting won’t be the Confederate shrine that it was when first installed in Grant Park in the 1920s.
“The North will win the battle each and every time,” Hale said.
More recently, history has become something to be negotiated. Abrams understands this bargaining. She has been a part of it. In 2015, in the aftermath of the massacre of nine church-goers in Charleston, S.C., by a young racist, state Rep. LaDawn Jones, D-Atlanta, wanted legislation to address the Confederate symbolism at Stone Mountain. She approached Abrams, then House minority leader, for support.
Abrams demurred. At the time, Abrams was working with state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Atlanta, and Gov. Nathan Deal on the erection of a statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the grounds of the state Capitol. A dedication ceremony is scheduled for Aug. 28.
Abrams probably won’t tell you that, in talks with a Republican governor who had his own bandwidth limitations, an MLK statue and a revamping of Stone Mountain policy were mutually exclusive — and that one had to be sacrificed to the other. I just did.
Even so, in a state that’s edging closer and closer to racial parity, the MLK statue is an example of the direction that negotiations over history are proceeding: Addition rather than subtraction.
That’s the strategy that DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, an amateur historian, has counseled in regard to Stone Mountain. Which is a state park contained entirely within his county, so there’s a certain amount of ownership there.
It’s also a line that Abram’s Democratic rival, state Rep. Stacey Evans of Smyrna, has quickly adopted.
Evans said she supported legislation to require the agency overseeing Stone Mountain Park “to maintain an appropriate, inclusive, and historically accurate memorial to the Civil War—not the Confederacy.” And communities should be allowed to determine what their own history is, Evans said.
There’s another reason that older Democrats may be more skeptical of Abrams’ suggestion that the carving on Stone Mountain be sandblasted.
On Wednesday, fellow civil rights veterans Andrew Young and C.T. Vivian were at Paschal’s restaurant to endorse Ceasar Mitchell, the Atlanta City Council president, in this fall’s race for mayor.
Young was asked if he condoned the removal of Confederate statues – even if local laws forbade it. His answer may have surprised some. And while not directed at Abrams, it could apply.
“I think it’s too costly to refight the Civil War. We have paid too great a price in trying to bring people together,” Young said. “I personally feel that we made a mistake in fighting over the Confederate flag here in Georgia. Or that that was an answer to the problem of the death of nine people – to take down the Confederate flag in South Carolina.”
Specifically, Young was speaking of Gov. Roy Barnes’ 2001 decision to pull down the 1956 state flag that prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem. The move was a primary reason Barnes lost his bid for re-election. The issue split the state Democratic party, and ushered in the current season of Republican rule.
“It cost us $14.9 billion and 70,000 jobs that would have gone with the Affordable Care Act (via Medicaid expansion) – which we probably would have had if we hadn’t been fighting over a flag,” Young said. “I am always interested in substance over symbols. If the truth be known, we’ve had as much agony – but also glory, under the United States flag. That flew over segregated America. It flew over slavery.”
In Grant Park, where the Cyclorama once was, there is a street with the name of Confederate Avenue. A petition has been submitted to Mayor Kasim Reed asking that the name be changed.
I asked Mitchell, who would replace Reed, for his position. “It’s going to be a community conversation among people who live and own property on that street, and I’m willing to entertain that,” Mitchell said.
But such decisions aren’t something that should be made on the street, he allowed. “I would just caution us, as a city – you can‘t replace an angry, evil mob with what we believe is a righteous mob,” Mitchell said. “We have a complicated history as a country, in the South and certainly in Atlanta. There’s so much good and bad intertwined and tangled together. We need to be able to untangle the good and the bad, get rid of the bad, and make it part of the past.”
In other words, rewrite the history of others as you would have yours rewritten. Because eventually, someone will.