Reprinted from The Nation by Jon Wiener on August 16, 2017.
Jon Wiener: “The Confederate statue that was ostensibly the focus of the events in Charlottesville was of Robert E. Lee, who surrendered at Appomattox in 1865. What can you tell us about this statue?”
Eric Foner: “The key thing to remember about this statue, and most of these statues, is that they have very little to do with the Civil War. This statute was erected in 1924, almost 70 years after the end of the Civil War. It was erected at height of Jim Crow, the height of the era of segregation, disenfranchisement, and lynching. By the way, after the Civil War Robert E. Lee refused to criticize those who lynched black people or used violence of other kinds against them. He opposed black suffrage. He thought of himself as a gentleman, which he probably was, but he certainly didn’t think black people should have any rights.
“Like all these statues, this one was erected as a statement about who’s in charge, about the power structure in society. My feeling is that it is not necessary to take down all these statues. Instead, I would like to see them erect other statues. Instead of taking down Lee, let’s put up a statue right near him—of, let us say, John M. Langston, a black member of Congress from Virginia in the 1880s, right after the end of Reconstruction. You don’t see very many statues to black leaders of the Reconstruction or post-Reconstruction South in Virginia or anywhere else. So if we’re going to talk about statues, I say let’s have the statuary be fully representative of Southern history. …