Opinion: Context shouldn’t be monuments’ Lost Cause

Our country’s tension over Confederate statues and monuments isn’t going away anytime soon.

The tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have guaranteed that we'll be forced to confront why we have hundreds of statues and memorials that were erected to honor our country's deadliest dispute over our worst practice.

In Atlanta, we’ve watched as this has played out in Charlottesville, New Orleans and other places, and we have to recognize that it’s coming our way.

In fact, Georgia is home to 140 such statues, according to "Georgia's Confederate Monuments" by Gould B. Hagler, Jr. You could create your own count, driving through almost any town, in any corner of the state. Or just walk around the state capitol building in downtown Atlanta. Or visit Stone Mountain.

As the arguments play out over what to do — or not — about this issue, we've seen extremes take hold. After all, in Charlottesville the dispute began over the removal of a statue. It then escalated into an extremist rally, counter-protests and finally deadly violence.

There are smart, committed people who can offer guidance on how the nation and Georgia might go about this.

One of those people is Ernest Greer, co-president of Greenberg Traurig, one of the country’s largest law firms. Greer is also chair of the Atlanta History Center board of trustees and a leading Atlanta citizen involved in many key organizations around town.

He’s African-American, and he’s a firm believer in understanding history.

He was also a major player in making the History Center the new home for the Cyclorama, the three-dimensional painting/experience that depicts the Battle of Atlanta during the Civil War. (Cyclorama 360 degree video.)

But wait a minute. Greer helped raise the more than $30 million to create a permanent home for an artifact of the Confederacy?

Yes — and his reasoning reveals how one of Atlanta’s most prominent citizens feels about the bigger issue of Confederate memorials and offers guidance as to how we might proceed.

First, though, make no mistake. Greer has strong feelings about the statues and monuments.

“These monuments were put up to glorify the South,” he said. “They were put up during Jim Crow. They depict white supremacy and the ‘Lost Cause.’ ”

Greer invites anyone interested in this issue — no matter what side they’re on — to consider a few important things about any Confederate statue or monument.

“When were these monuments built and why?” he said. “Let’s bring this history out.”

Monuments, memorials and statues really say more about the people who create them than they do about those honored. Many of the Confederate statues were erected well after the Civil War, Greer said.

As the South suffered through tough economic times and racial divisiveness, the myth of the “Lost Cause” was created as a way of obscuring slavery as the root cause of the Civil War. “States rights” and the “Old South” were embraced as monuments were erected.

“They were put up to say ‘We don’t want people of color to have rights,’ ” Greer said. “Look at it in a historical context. You can’t glorify this.”

The history center has taken the position that all such Confederate memorials should offer that kind of context. It is staying out of the debate about whether statues should be removed, but rather offering specific advice on how communities and organizations can “contextualize” the monuments. It’s a view that appears to be growing in popularity around the country.

Of course, the effort suffers from being thoughtful and nuanced. Two sides screaming at each other makes for better television, so it remains to be seen if our country is ready for the hard work of examining for ourselves why we have a statue of Robert E. Lee, who put it there, and what their motivation was. And most important of all, how all of that history affects us today.

Greer finds himself deeply concerned about that very thing.

“Here’s our challenge as a nation: white supremacists see the monuments as a weapon in their cause,” Greer said. “The actual statue has no significance. It’s what behind it — the message — that matters.”

“These statues have become a nuisance. As long as monuments exist … they are tools of racism. The reason they were created has come to light.”

The white supremacists of Charlottesville help show that point.

Greer believes we ought to take those tools away. He’d place statues in museums where he says they belong, and then create the programming and information for people to understand them.

“I want to be respectful (to those) who don’t share their views — who have historic perspective,” he said.

And that’s why the approach to the Cyclorama makes sense to him. The history center is planning a thorough and thoughtful program around its true history.

“My opinion is practical,” he said. “This isn’t going away. How many more people have to die? How many more marchers do we want to see?”

“Over a statue?”

He believes that Atlanta and Georgia can provide leadership on this issue, and the history center has gotten some attention for its efforts so far.

The issue looms large for us in Georgia, and Greer is hoping it can be resolved by smart local leadership without extremism.

“That’s a discourse our political and business leaders have to decide,” Greer said. “Let’s take it out of the media,” Greer said. “Let’s pull together and get in front of this for Atlanta and Georgia.”