Putting anyone on a pedestal is a tricky business. Who we commemorate says just as much about the culture and point of view of the majority in political and economic power at the time as it does about the object of veneration itself. As a monument ages, it develops a history separate from its subject, particularly when popular opinions and perspectives change.
The impulse to remove monuments as time passes and perspectives change is natural. On one hand, a once-celebrated individual can come to be regarded negatively in the light of current culture, opinion and attitudes. It seems reasonable, therefore, for those who are personally offended by that person (and that belief system) to object to the community support that they believe is implicit in leaving the monument in place.
Others may wish to distance themselves from that past and prefer that the nuisance simply be removed, since it presents an embarrassing reminder of some aspect of our collective history. After all, it is much harder to wave a bloody shirt after it has been dry cleaned.
As natural and well-intentioned as these impulses are, I believe they do not serve our community well. Although these controversies may serve as a cautionary tale for the erection of new monuments, once erected, these physical embodiments of cultural and political views should be retained for the lessons they can teach us over time about ourselves and how we have grown and changed as a people, a community, and a country.
Preserving such monuments is not the same as implicit support of an ideology, but instead, with broader interpretation, should be viewed as a type of historical waypoint that helps us understand our current situation in relationship to our past.
Inscriptions on monuments beg for context. Today, modern technology, such as QR Codes, can direct the observer to a broader historical and cultural context of the monument. This modern technology and its interpretive authority can be updated, providing evolving perspectives over time.
The great story of this nation is not that we have always been enlightened by current standards, but that we have evolved in our treatment and acceptance of one another. An honest examination of our history requires us to confront a painful, ambiguous past – an examination that for many is difficult, challenging and distressing. That examination can also be provocative, stimulating and inspiring.
We cannot change our history. But, we can learn from it. Controversial history should not be sanitized. Instead, this is an opportunity to address the underlying issues that often divide us. Rather than censoring the past, let us bridge the divide and use the changing interpretation of history to open ourselves to perspectives that can allow all of us to learn from our past and create a better Atlanta. The past has much to teach us about who we are, and where we are — if we let it.
Sheffield Hale is president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center.