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Panel of historians discusses Decatur’s Confederate monument

Decatur Metro ATL slideshow

Panel of historians discusses Decatur’s Confederate monument

The local NAACP chapter and other community groups co-sponsored last night's historian panel on the Decatur Confederate monument. Agnes Scott assistant professor Robin Morris had some advice beyond Confederate relics. "Find your issue or your issues and go for those and really commit yourself to whatever really lights that fire in your belly," she said. "It may not be the Confederate monument... but you don't have to take on every single fight." Pictured Left to Right: Sara Patenaude, with hate free Decatur, Mawuli Davis with the Beacon Hill branch of the NAACP, DeKalb County Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader, Dr. Robin Morris, Dr. Maurice Hobson, Dr. Joseph Crespino, Dr. Kurt Young, Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt. Photo by Duo-Wei Yang
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The local NAACP chapter and other community groups co-sponsored last night’s historian panel on the Decatur Confederate monument. Agnes Scott assistant professor Robin Morris had some advice for activists. “Find your issue or your issues and go for those and really commit yourself to whatever really lights that fire in your belly,” she said. “It may not be the Confederate monument… but you don’t have to take on every single fight.” Pictured Left to Right: Sara Patenaude, with hate free Decatur, Mawuli Davis with the Beacon Hill branch of the NAACP, DeKalb County Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader, Dr. Robin Morris, Dr. Maurice Hobson, Dr. Joseph Crespino, Dr. Kurt Young, Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt. Photo by Duo-Wei Yang

By Duo-Wei Yang, contributor 

Local civil rights and community activists working to remove a Confederate monument brought together a panel of historians on Monday to make their case.

DeKalb County Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, who is proposing a resolution to remove the monument, began the discussion by saying how pleased she was at the turnout.

“This discussion, I feel, is very important,” she said. “And given the current state of affairs in our nation, we must have these courageous, tough conversations in order to work towards progression in this country.”

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Activists have demanded the monument’s removal in the wake of a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. that resulted in the deaths of three people. These groups held a rally and a discussionin the city’s downtown to support removing it. The monument has also been defaced three times since the debate began.

Dr. Joseph Crespino from Emory University was the first speaker on the historian panel last night.

“I’ve said this to many people — we’re going through a very difficult time in our nation’s history right now,” he said. “We’re a very divided country. We’re seeing rates of polarization that are seemingly unprecedented.”

Despite having to revisit the race issue in more depth, some of the process is good, Crespino says.

“It’s forcing us to confront a history that we have ignored for a long time,” he said.

Agnes Scott professor Robin Morris explained why the Decatur Square monument was positioned right in front of the DeKalb courthouse.

“The location of it — right in front of the courthouse is no accident,” she said. “It was supposed to be there as a warning to any black man trying to go into the courthouse to the registrar of voters.”

Morris suggested improving education about racial history after only a few attendees said they knew about the Atlanta race riot of 1906, which occurred two years before the monument was erected.

“One thing we could do is look at our curriculum and what we’re teaching our students because we don’t talk enough about the man-made creations of Jim Crow and that segregation was never the natural way that people chose to live,” she said.

Dr. Maurice Hobson from Georgia State University agreed with Morris.

“The problem is that history has often been treated as if one should have a good memory… to not really question the narrative,” he said. “And if we would teach our children, K through 12, to really begin to recreate narratives based on primary sources, to dig into archives, to question the things that are around them, we’ll have a very different kind of understanding of history.”

The panel also discussed misconceptions relating to the Confederate monuments, such as the argument to preserve them because they were paid for by the city and the people.

Historian Keri Leigh Merritt explained why this wasn’t the case for the one on Decatur square.

“This monument was not paid for by Decatur. It was not paid for by DeKalb county. It was paid for by donations from white supremacists,” she said. “And the white supremacists were basically led by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.”

They erected the statue “to educate the children of the community,” and to “erase slavery from the narrative of the Confederacy and make it about states’ rights,” Merritt said.

“I think we really need to keep that in mind when we’re figuring out where to go from here,” she said.

Crespino said monuments erected back then did not require an extensive process to go through and approval from the public like they would today.

“That was not available in 1908,” he said. “So a private organization claimed this public space and there was no comment about it by any of the African-American population.”

Professor Kurt Young from Clark Atlanta University hopes that people don’t “fall into the trap” of thinking that removing monuments diminishes Confederate history.

“There are institutions in place that allow for [people] to gain an understanding of white supremacy and its manifestation in society,” he said.

Hobson hopes that people can develop the ability to put narratives into the proper context to remember history properly.

“Just because aspects of history are not your reality does not mean that they’re not real,” he said.

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