tv QA Author Erin Thompson on the Rise and Fall of Americas Public Monuments CSPAN July 3, 2022 11:00pm-12:01am EDT
and that only lasted for about 70 years before soldiers of the new army -- independence and pulled it down. these issues -- both rock to folk is use of monument -- the white worldview. there is a lot of debate on whether monuments in public spaces should be taken down. nothing compares to the summer of 2021 after the death of george floyd, millions of americans marched to protest rachel -- racial disparity, black lives matter. lots of these rallies focused on monuments as a symbolic meeting place for showing who was honored in america. whose lives mattered and whose lives did not. since february 2020, dashed monuments have come down. 80% of those came down through official actions. through local officials saying we are going to take the statue and relocated to somewhere a little less prominent like a graveyard. we are not going to put it in storage and decide what to do about it later.
host: this issue really became a touch point in the 2020 election. let's watch that and come back to you. [video clip] >> in the city of richmond and -- they tore down the statue of christopher columbus. the man who freed the statues, it is racist. in dallas, they tore the rangers statue down after more than 50 years. they did the same thing in philadelphia. same in albany. in oregon, the statue of thomas jefferson was torn down. in san francisco, euless -- francis scott key and use lucy's as grant were toppled. on the pedestal of the key monument, they spray-painted,
killed colonizers, kill whites. just in case you missed the point. one thing all of these now canceled americans have in common not one of them fought , for the confederacy. pulling down their statues has nothing to do with the civil war. not the first civil war that took place 150 years ago. host: erin thompson, what is your reaction after listening to that report? erin: first i want to say, for the book, one of the chapters is based on an interview i did -- -- i did with an indigenous activist in the twin cities who took responsibility for toppling a statue in minnesota. and he explained it to me that he has tried for decades to have the statue removed. or to have it questions or have
signage added. he was assured there was a process through which he could file petitions. but shortly after the statue came down, the government admitted there was never any process for those petitions to be heard. it's not surprising to me that if people have no hope, their -- have no hope that their voices will be heard and their objections to the shared public space will be listened to, you will see acts of civil disobedience. i do not think that there should be violence, i think there should be ways for objections to be heard. what we have seen alongside the removal of any statues in the last few years is it is also an attempt in many state legislatures to strengthen the protection and make it harder for them to be removed
officially and make the penalties for pulling them down more difficult. so we are at a crossroads. can we have a discussion about how we are going to represent ourselves? or will statues be nailed to the pedestals by people currently in control? susan: we will have a chance to dig into a couple more of those topics. why are they so many emotions around objects made of stone? ms. thompson: it seems strange sometimes. like only pigeons cared about them before and now people are willing to die or kill to take them down or protect them. but if you think about the role that art plays in human life, it is not surprising. we learn to love, hate, through images.
we perceive the world through images before we understand speech or read. they tap into a different part of the brain. monuments are designed to arouse emotions. think of how often something is celebrated by a beautiful body. you have an allegorical figure representing the ideals of the confederacy or of america. you are supposed to be attracted to that body. beautiful equals good. but just like beautiful people, monuments can hide a more complex reality behind the surface. susan: tucker carlsen said this is part of cancel culture. what do you have to say to people who say that is canceling history? ms. thompson: a lot of people
are worried that taking down a monument erases history. but monuments are not history lessons. they show a very careful, narrow view of history. you can think of statues as selfies for the nation. showing history from the very best angle without complexity or pain. they do not tell the facts of the past. so to remove a monument is to remove a form of honor, but not to erase history. susan: does removing statues change our society? ms. thompson: yes and no. one story i tell in the book is about a community in new jersey that protested the removal of a monument of columbus after they had been asking for the removal for a decade.
what they wanted was not for it to disappear, they wanted to have a rally or parade to celebrate the removal and make public the reasons why they thought columbus was a problematic figure. they did not want it to just disappear. so they camped out in front of the trucks that were there to take it away for a couple of days until they could have the parade. so taking away the monument without having a conversation about why it went up is worse than useless. so in some ways it is frustrated to me -- frustrating to me that the process of removal is bogged down by law processes and debates but in another way, it is a good way to have the discussion about who we want to see in public spaces.
susan: you wrote in your acknowledgments that you had to learn to deal with waves of negative reactions directed at you. what was that light, and were you surprised -- what was that like, and were you surprised? ms. thompson: i was a little surprised that people thought i could control the fate of monuments. tucker carlson said i was leading of nihilists. the only nihilists i know where my children and they don't even listen to me about bathtime. i am not the mastermind or -- mastermind of statue removal or that tucker carlson thinks i am.
but i was glad that my thoughts on statue removal got so much attention, even negative, because those arguments people were having about my point of view showed me, ok, this is what i need to address in my books. this is what people believe, and these are the gaps in understanding i think i can fill in. i am not the czar of monuments and my book does not give you a list of which ones should stay or go. but i knew the types of information people should fill into their understanding to make decisions. susan: many contested statues have been confederate war memorials. you said the first 20 years after the war was very different than the next 40 or so. ms. thompson: we think of confederate memorials as something immediately celebrating the war. but for the first few decades,
there were relatively few confederate moments that went up. they were mostly in graveyards and had imagery of morning -- mourning. they were personal monuments for people who had lost members of their family. but in the turn-of-the-century, those monuments started to move out of graveyards and into the public sphere and became more militaristic, featuring generals, portraits of stonewall jackson, robert e. lee, but more often featuring a portrait of an unnamed low ranking soldier standing at attention in a posture known as parade rest.
they were meant to be seen by all. they were in front of court -- courthouses and post offices and in the town square. the war memorials were also in -- on the union side with very little difference. many people say they are about heritage, not hate, that they are not trying to oppress anyone but they are celebrating those who fought in the civil war. and i started to wonder, if this is true, what exactly the statues are celebrating. if you wanted to honor a low ranking soldier, you could show his courage charging into battle, or show his sacrifice
wounded or dying, but why do the monuments just show a soldier standing there? i looked into military manuals and found that this parade rest posture is used during training as they receive instructions from drill instructors. they were standing to demonstrate obedience. and i found that when the statues went up at the turn-of-the-century, they were often paid for by people who wanted to be obeyed by the descendants of the low ranking soldiers like factory workers and those who worked in mines.
you can read the dedication speeches that talk about the factory owners praising the obedience of confederate soldiers, saying their glory was their duty and sacrifice and being a cog in the wheel. so i wondered why all the factory owners were praising obedience? they often go up at the same time that there is labor unrest and the efforts to unionize our interglacial efforts. -- efforts to unionize our
interracial union efforts. so a lot of these confederate monuments went up at a time when factory owners were trying to break interracial organization among their workers. so it is essentially an appeal to confederate heritage to say, your duty is to support the race lines that your ancestors died trying to uphold rather than work together to improve your lives in the present with a living wage. this is what i am trying to do in the book, dig into history to show the real motivations behind the statues. susan: why would civil war monuments be going up in the northern part of the country at the same time? ms. thompson: the union monuments are more often closer to the actual conflict in the late 19th century. what is interesting about them is who is represented as fighting.
about 80% of northern black men between 15 and 50 served in the union army along with 17% of southern black men who escaped slavery and went back to fight for the freedom of others. so despite the large presence of black soldiers in the union army, there are only a few representations in 19th century and early 20th century public monuments of black soldiers fighting. it is most often a white soldier, either low ranking or a portrait of a general. you often see confederate and union generals shaking hands or reconciling in these union monuments.
so i think there is a way in which the north and southern monuments are trying to make arguments about who should hold power in the country after the civil war, trying to in a way yank back the promise of equality and say that although black people fought for their own freedom, they were not really deserving of full of quality in the political and social life of the country. they can just say they received freedom as a gift instead of having to fought for it. susan: in your introduction, you deal with one of the most iconic statues in the country, on top
the u.s. capitol. the name of the statue is freedom. the origin story involves jefferson davis, clerk mills, and philip read. what is important to know about freedom's origins? ms. thompson: freedom is an allegory of liberty that went atop the the capitol dome in 1863 but had been underway for a long time before that. the statue was first designed by a sculptor who fought with -- who's boss was jefferson davis. the future president of the confederacy was the secretary of war and in charge of decorations for the capitol building and the sculptor thomas crawford gave
him a sketch to say this is what i think that sculpture should look like. jefferson davis objected to the hat being worn. the hat is known as the liberty cap and has been known as a symbol of liberty since ancient rome. they would get that type of hat to newly freed slaves. so jefferson davis said no, this type of freedom is not appropriate for america. he wanted the sculpture of freedom to celebrate the lives of those who had been born free. he was fiercely defending the institution of slavery and did not want anyone to think about the possibility of emancipation, the possibility that those enslaved could one day be free.
so the artist change the headgear. freedom is wearing what looks like an eagle plopped on her head with feathers everywhere like a vegas showgirl. that model was made in plaster and then another sculptor cast it in bronze to go on top the capitol building. the workshop for casting the sculptures had employee who was a slave and part of the working family.
day controlling minor spires under bits of old. so they had to take the plaster statue and impress it into a mixture of sand and loam to make a mold in which the metal was poured but first the mold had to dry and he was in charge of making sure it dried. he was paid $1.25 per day by the government but he could only keep the $1.25 he earned on sundays. the rest went to his owner. the irony of someone being forced to make a sculpture symbolizing freedom that he did not have. another woman owned by mills had run away and been captured and returned to him a few years before mills started working on freedom. so mills would have been working on this sculpture, this representation of freedom, while living with someone who had tried to obtain her freedom and had been recaptured. we do not know her fate but by the time this sculpture went up, read had been freed by the district of columbia emancipation act and collected about $40 from the federal government.
this history is what i wanted the book to reveal. to make us think, is it right to have a sculpture supposedly representing freedom when it is a white version of what freedom is? susan: 12 years ago c-span did a feature video on the u.s. capitol and this is a clip about historians talking about the statue of freedom. >> december 2, 1863 is one of the greatest days in the history of the building. the head and shoulders of freedom were mounted into place on top of the dome.
contributions? ms. thompson: we don't. that's the difficult part of writing these histories. if people have been silenced in the historical record, you can interpret whatever you want back onto their lives, or you have to be very careful not to do so. but i found when writing the book that speaking for someone still happens. the indigenous activists i interviewed about why he took down the statue of columbus, there had been so much reporting on the action that hardly anyone
had bothered asking him why he did it. these debates about monuments often go that way. people assume they know what other people want from monuments but in reality, if you look closer, you will see there are all sorts of strange motivations and histories that can be entertaining or enlightening. susan: the statue went up under the orders of president lincoln. did he ever speak about the statue? ms. thompson: i do not think so. or at least i do not know. lincoln has also become a controversial figure in monuments in the last few years so there have been protests about some lincoln monuments. some of those protests are because of lincoln's actions in approving the execution of indigenous people in the aftermath of the u.s. dakota war. and sometimes they are because memorials to lincoln also include representations of the emancipation that can be
insulting, implying that emancipation was given as a gift by lincoln instead of fought for by people who wanted it. one memorial and washington, d.c. has become controversial. a copy in boston has been removed in storage because it shows lincoln handing a scroll symbolizing emancipation to a kneeling black man. he has chains and that chains are broken but he is in a very passive, kneeling posture. it is as if he is still enslaved and had nothing to do with winning the freedom. the face of the kneeling man is modeled after a photograph of a man named archer alexander who was known by the man who commissioned the statue. alexander escaped from his owner in the midwest during the civil war and made it to a free state and then was kidnapped by people who wanted to sell him into slavery and he escaped from them.
so the irony of the face of someone who escaped slavery twice being used to represent the face of a powerless man has not escaped notice. susan: i want to spend a couple of minutes on horatio greenough. you called him the father of our monuments. what is important to know about him? ms. thompson: he was the first american to be commissioned to create public art for the capital. before him it was usually italian artists called to come in to make art that americans were not yet experts. he is the first to make a monument of george washington and he also saw it removed two years later. he decided to use a neoclassical style and was commissioned in the 1830's to make the statue of washington. it shows washington in a toga, sitting on a roman throne, naked from the waist up and handing over the sword to the next president. he is raising his hands to the heavens to show the link between washington on god. it is a strange looking statue. the head was placed on a statue that had been carved during
washington's lifetime. so his face is old and he has wrinkles and jowls and then from the neck down he is a superhero. the attempt was to show that he was a perfect leader with a perfect body. he was made fun of a lot for the sculpture. congress said it looked like washington stepped out of a bathtub or sitting in an outhouse. if you read between the lines you see what they objected to was the idea that washington was a perfect leader blessed by
heaven because how can you be the next president if you need the favor of god instead of just the votes of the people? so it was removed and put in a museum. the removal went basically without comment. that is what is different from today. if people want in power want the monuments gone, it is easy. if you do not have the political capital to get a monument especially removed, it will be messy. susan: the longest chapter in your book is about a sculpture associated with mount rushmore. but you discuss an earlier work, the stone mountain monument. in the stone mountain, georgia.
when did you learn? ms. thompson: it is the world's largest confederate monument. it is the largest relief carving. it is a portrait of jefferson davis, stonewall jackson, and robert e. lee riding across a cliff on a mountain. a few miles outside atlanta, georgia. the project began in 1914 when a confederate widow wanted to put up a portrait of robert e. lee on the side of the cliff. she hired dustin, a strange choice because he lived in connecticut and was the son of danish immigrants and head made his name sculpting portraits of lincoln. he even named his son lincoln and wanted to be commissioned to do the lincoln memorial. it didn't work and he was broke and in debt and didn't know what to do next when out of the blue he got this call from georgia.
he wanted this to be a shrine for the south, as he put it. he didn't want this because he was a proud southern heritage advocate, it's because he negotiated a contract where he would get a percentage of the total cost of the monument. so the more he could carve, the more money he could collect. the only problem was he signed the contract but he did not know how to carve in a mountain, no one had carved figures that big in a mountain, especially not that high. they start hundreds of feet up in the air. he eventually figured it out. it went slowly. so slowly, he had collected about 90% of his fee for carving 5% of the central group and was fired in 1925 by the organizing
committee because they said, not only is he going slowly, but he is asking for more funds, we think he is trying to embezzle. we were probably right. -- they were probably right. but the motivation for them was they wanted to embezzle and not split it with him. they launched a huge fundraising campaign, collected over $1 million, but only succeeded in getting another head of lead carved with the rest of the money disappearing into their pockets. many people want the monument to be taken down now.
but how to take down a sculpture in a mountain? you use dynamite. the monument over its history has been associated with malevolent forces. the same year he was hired to carve the front of the mountain the kkk was reborn in a ceremony on top of the mountain. the same people were involved in the confederate memorial project and in the reborn kkk and he himself joined the klan and played a role in trying to bring it into national politics.
because of the controversy, the monument was paused for a few decades and nothing happened until brown versus board of education in 1954. georgia's new governor put the confederate flag on the georgia state flag and bought stone mountain to make into a state park and finish the monument as a rallying point for those who wanted to uphold the ideals of the confederacy. klansmen continued to burn crosses on top of the stone mountain into the 70's when georgia finally prohibited them from using the state park. they just basically moved
downhill onto private land. the klan was reborn yet again in 1963 on stone mountain in yet another ceremony. so i really want us to wonder how often does a site need to be used as a means of encouraging hateful ideology before we say, this isn't working, let's put up something else. susan: how does georgia deal with its complicated history now? ms. thompson: there is some movement at stone mountain but it's complicated. they are not coming to see the monument. they are coming for golfing and boating. it is a recreational park. but the recreation happens while
you are driving along roads named for confederate generals and you see this giant monument. in 2002 georgia removed the confederate battle flag from the state flag. but stone mountain stayed. it has been kept into place legislatively. there are limitations as to what anybody can do about the monument unless they convince the legislature to change the law. there are encouraging signs. the stone mountain memorial association in charge of the park and monument elected their first black leader last year. when the first leaders were klansmen, this is quite a change.
but what he can do is still tied. i think what will change is economic pressure. the park is already having difficulty finding vendors who are willing to run concessions at a park that celebrates the history without acknowledging the complications of that history. so i think there is a possibility of change. whether it is dramatic or just adding signage and encouraging people to think about the wider history. susan: you have mentioned the minnesota state capital columbus statue.
here is a story about the 2020 toppling of that statue. >> in boston, protesters damaged a christopher columbus statue. in virginia, they threw one in the water. native american groups in minnesota have petitioned for years to take down a 1930's era columbus statue here. >> we can't be passive anymore. we have to take it down. reporter: mike claims he bought a rope and let others do the heavy lifting. this is against the law. >> after we were done, i was told i will be arrested and charged with criminal damage of property. but i am willing to take that. susan: what happened to him? what happened to the statue?
ms. thompson: he was charged with criminal damage to property. his lawyer persuaded prosecutors to use an alternate form of restorative justice. instead of a trial, they had a talking circle, where they convene volunteers from concerned communities, from people who considered the statute to be a harmful reminder of genocide and those honoring italian sculptors.
that there were no peaceful ways to remove the statue. he had exhausted all legal possibilities. the judge accepted the recommendation that he complete 100 hours of community service, and it took the form of educating the people about the harms done by the statue. the statue is in storage. there are some minnesota legislators who say they want it returned to their -- to its pedestal. others want to put it on display in its damaged state as a way of educating people about minnesota history.
we do not know. and that is the fate of hundreds of monuments today. susan: you said earlier you think we are at a tipping point about public art and in 2020 most americans agree that controversial statues should be removed. who makes that decision? how are states and communities responding to this moment in time? ms. thompson: is called public art but it is somewhat of a misnomer. because they were put there by a small group of people who were wealthy and powerful without any
consultation with communities. the majority of decisions about removal are still made by small groups of people. so we really need to have a better way of talking about monuments. not only where they should go, but what should go up. i am not going to say, here is a list of acceptable people to honor with monuments. those decisions should be made by communities but too often it is someone in power without consulting communities. susan: has this caused a public discussion on what public art should look like? you mentioned the first new to statue growing up in new york honoring women and that it evolved. can you tell me that story? ms. thompson: in 2020, a group called monumental women put a statue in central park. their goal was to honor real women rather than alice in wonderland, they wanted actual women who had actually lived. they raised some funding and decided the first candidates would be women who fought for women's rights. the first version of the proposed statue honored only two white suffragists and there was criticism that this did not fully capture the range of people who fought for women's rights. they responded to the criticism by adding a statue of sojourner truth. so there is a statue of the three of them sitting around a table debating.
there has still been argument among historians and feminist scholars about whether this is to call and placid about the women's rights movement -- whether this is too calm and placid about the women's rights movement. i think it shows the women looking fairly unconcerned as if the problems are over, where the problems still continue today. i do not need to be reassured by a monument. i would rather be fired up by one. but it is a demonstration that voices heard in public can make a difference about what type of sculpture that goes up. so i would encourage everyone to make their opinions heard about these sculptures because for too long it has been a limited set of people making their opinions known and i think our public art could be much more interesting, inspiring, and look more like america if people made their opinions known.
susan: what direction has virginia gone in? ms. thompson: virginia had a long-standing law protecting monuments from removal not just by individual actors but by local authorities. they were not allowed to modify or remove established monuments. this seems like a neutral law but these laws in southern states were enacted around the time when confederate monuments were starting to be questioned and in most communities, confederate monument was the monument in the community.
so these are very targeted. in 2017 in charlottesville, virginia began to question if the confederate monuments were appropriate for the community. there was a lawsuit to keep them in place. the unite the right rally was in support of keeping monuments there. so the law was debated about whether it was appropriate to basically nail the monuments in place despite the wishes of the community. now in virginia local community officials can decide about monuments. not to say they can do whatever they want without consultation. there is a process and there has to be democratic discussion, but there is a possibility of
discussion. instead of something being removed from the sphere of debate. susan: the state capital has removed some confederate war memorials in richmond. that process is underway in virginia. we have five minutes left so let's use that to wrap this discussion up. what do you think hope will happen as a result of this conversation and your book? ms. thompson: i hope people are surprised and confused when reading. surprised out of their certainties to come together and have a real conversation instead of thinking they know what the history is and what the future should be.
i hope people take another look at monuments, including those in their communities. i could not write about every monument in america but i think people should dig into the history of monuments they see every day and ask themselves if they want it representing their community. susan: is there a central location developed where people who research this is being gathered? ms. thompson: that would be a good idea. i think wikipedia is the best answer so far. susan: what are your thoughts on your own role going forward? ms. thompson: we will see. i think i have acted as a legal consultant to certain cases, what is possible or not in your state, but i am as interested as anyone to see how this unfold.
susan: erin thompson is our guest, a professor of art crime and also a lawyer and has been working on this topic for a while and has a new book called "smashing statues: the rise and fall of america's public monuments." thank you so much for spending an hour with c-span. i appreciate it. ms. thompson: thank you for having me. >> q and day programs are available on our website or as a podcast on our c-span now app.