In recent years, perhaps in that spirit, efforts have been made to remove Confederate war monuments. But it is not apparent that this is sufficient to reshape our collective memory about our brutal past. Perhaps a better approach is contextualizing these monuments, providing a complete sense of their place in our history as a nation. In my dream world, we wouldn’t sandblast the face of Stone Mountain and remove the images of the Confederate leaders. Instead, we’d create a museum that you’d have to walk through before you could enter the park. It would tell people what the Civil War was really fought over, it would show the brutality of slavery, it would trace the history of Stone Mountain itself and how it became part of the Lost Cause movement and played a pivotal role in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. I think people will still flock there and appreciate it in a whole new way — as a site of memory and reverence — rather than subconsciously consuming its old neo-Confederate ideas.
We need more sites like what Stevenson and his Equal Injustice Initiative (EJI) helped create in Montgomery, Alabama, with the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The Legacy Museum took a former slave warehouse site and turned it into space to share history. Meanwhile, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a powerful, emotive creation dedicated to the legacy of enslavement, segregation, prejudice and terroristic lynching. Somehow, by acknowledging these truly ugly moments we can find a sense of unexpected beauty here — not just in the memorial itself but in humanity.
Sometimes, I think we don’t have more of these places because people are afraid that in confronting the past it will create a new conflict to further divide us. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think they can be uniting spaces, especially seeing how as most of us weren’t old enough to be there. We weren’t the perpetrators or the victims. And not being directly part of these horrors allows us to learn from this history and unites us in our responsibility to do things not only for ourselves and for future generations, but also for those who were there and are no longer with us.
Fred Smith Jr. is associate professor at Emory University School of Law. He is a scholar of the federal judiciary and constitutional law. In 2019, he was named the law school’s Outstanding Professor of the Year.