On June 15, 2020, the Washington County Board of Supervisors voted 4-to-1 to relocate the Confederate statue from the courthouse lawn in downtown Greenville, which is now more than 80% Black. The county is working with the Greenville Historic Preservation Commission and will pay for the statue’s move to a different county site. One side of the statue quotes Confederate President Jefferson Davis: “For those who encountered the perils of war in defense of states rights and constitutional government.” The statue is believed to contain a time capsule. Photo by Donna Ladd.

Offensive Monuments Can Become Powerful History Lesson After They ‘Expire’

Historical monuments are intended to be timeless, but almost all have an expiration date. As society’s values shift, the legitimacy of monuments can and often does erode.

This is because monuments – whether statues, memorials or obelisks – reveal the values of the time in which they were created and advance the agendas of their creators.

Many 9/11 monuments in the U.S., for example, serve both to remember and honor victims of the attacks while promoting national vigilance. These views garnered nearly universal support immediately after the attacks. Over time, however, as the costs and consequences of “homeland security” became clearer, unqualified support for this agenda has waned.

Current debates around racism confirm that Confederate statues and Christopher Columbus statues, both of which effectively commemorate white superiority, have expired, too.


The question then becomes: What’s a nation to do with expired monuments?

Russian children play atop a toppled statue of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.

Purpose of monuments

Over the past century, American public officials, citizens and historians have taken one of two paths. They either ignored expired monuments – the 20th-century approach – or, more recently, rejected them.

Ignoring problem monuments left the impression among many that officials endorsed the views they embodied. Today, people who see a host of monuments as illegitimate symbols of racism, authoritarianism and oppression have rejected this official indifference. Through protest or policy change, they have forced more open and productive discussions about race in America. Ultimately, many offensive monuments have been removed.

Removal eliminates the symbols of now-rejected values. But as historians and educators who have explored the instructive value of monuments, we believe statue removal can also limit the important conversations underway about their expired agendas.

Monuments provide an especially useful educational service because they serve double duty. They mark historical events or figures – the Battle of Bunker Hill, say, or Martin Luther King Jr. – and reflect the prevailing values of the time in which they were created. Monuments are also unique compared with other forms of cultural expression like art or literature in that they almost always reside in public spaces and are found in practically every town and city in America.

These attributes make monuments ideal launching points for helping society assess its current values and compare them with what mattered in the past.

Expired monuments are a lesson: They teach that people can be tragically wrong about something even when that belief once had widespread public support and official approval. Simultaneously, they show that radical, marginalized or contrary voices can turn out to be right. Or they may be, like their opponents, creatures of a particular moment in time.

A 1933 statue of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis is removed from the University of Texas campus to be placed in a university museum, 2015. Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images.

Reinventing monuments

We’ve been studying how the function of expired monuments might be entirely reinvented so that their outdated agendas provide a cautionary tale.

Many thinkers, artists and public officials have put forward suggestions.

A common idea is to move expired monuments to museums, where they would be recast as art or as historic artifacts. The most creative proposals include making a Confederate statues “graveyard” or moving expired monuments to a sculpture park.

In all these settings, expired monuments would be stripped of the seal of official endorsement and clearly explained as once-venerated symbols of views now understood to be morally unacceptable. That raises larger questions about how societies can be blind to their own moral failures.

European countries offer some examples of how statues from painful chapters of history can be, as artist Jonathan Keats put it, “forcefully repositioned in a radically new context.”

Gorky Park in Moscow contains an area displaying old Soviet-era monuments that deprives them of their symbolic power. Statues of dictators Stalin and Lenin are no longer in a prominent public location and are clumped together in an apolitical manner.

In Estonia, old Soviet-era monuments are part of a history-rich museum exhibition that uses these relics of authoritarianism as a warning to future generations.

In post-World War II Germany, virtually all monuments to Hitler and the Third Reich were destroyed; perhaps some crimes are simply too abhorrent to be remembered so soon. But in 1986 an unusual monument against fascism was erected in Hamburg. Each year a portion of this vertical gray column was lowered underground until by 1993 it was completely gone. The 39-foot monument “disappeared” before it could expire.

The sunken monument can still be viewed underground. This tactic communicates that society needs to remember the dangers of fascism, but that a monument is not enough. Ultimately, only engaged citizens can attack injustice.

From valorizing to analyzing

Reinventing expired monuments uses outdated objects to teach about a society’s past values while assessing – and perhaps challenging – its contemporary beliefs. In other words, it moves from valorizing monuments to analyzing them.

That’s rich terrain for educators. Teachers can use reinvented monuments to ask students to consider the validity of what American society believes, says and does.

Black Empowerment Organization members lost their first round in the fight to move the Confederate statue from the Neshoba County (Miss.) courthouse grounds in the summer of 2020, but vow to keep fighting until they win. Photo by Donna Ladd.

Monuments expire because views change. But because present-day cultural values are themselves often difficult for people to see from another perspective, analyzing monuments also has the educational value of prompting deliberations about how future generations will reflect upon today’s United States. How did this generation of Americans grapple with issues like racial injustice, climate change and economic inequality?

Future generations will hold current society to account, just as Americans today are scrutinizing the views and actions of past generations.

Reinventing rather than simply removing monuments requires confronting the past, recognizing current conditions and planning for the future – all while embracing the reality that historical change is a complex, messy and malleable process.

This piece is published in cooperation with The Conversation, an independent, nonprofit publisher of commentary and analysis, authored by academics on timely topics related to their research.This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

The Conversation

Can you support the Mississippi Free Press?

 The Mississippi Free Press is nonprofit, solutions-driven journalism for Mississippians and others who care about the state. 

With your help, we can do even more important stories like this one.