A few weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a historian roundtable by the On Monument Avenue blog, a project sponsored by the American Civil War Museum that explores the messy historical context of Richmond’s storied Monument Avenue. Monument Avenue, a City Beautiful-inspired boulevard of Confederate luminaries, is currently at the center of debates over whether to remove, recontextualize, or preserve Confederate monuments. The ACWM assembled a group of four historians and tasked us with answering the question Why now? Why are we only just now acting to revise the Confederate landscape?
Or, as the introduction to the roundtable put it:
As we finish tracing the histories that emanated from 1890, we would like to more directly address the histories that have led to this particular moment that we reconsidering Confederate monuments in Richmond and beyond. In short, why is this happening now? The 2015 Charleston murders are an obvious starting point. But we would like to explore several political and social contexts that may reveal that this much more than a response to a single horrific act, but one that represents deeper structural change in American society, in how we see ourselves and our collective past.
The other three entries are by Modupe Labode, Julian Maxwell Hayter, and W. Fitzhugh Brundage, and I highly recommend reading all three of them – I definitely learned a lot! My entry, “Undercurrents of Opposition and the Catalyst for Change,” explores how the Black Lives Matter movement and the Civil War sesquicentennial created an environment of opposition into which the Charleston shooting exploded as a spark for action. An excerpt:
The Black Lives Matter movement was founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in 2013, in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. It began as a hashtag on social media, but quickly became a powerful organizing tool for local communities mobilizing to protest police shootings of unarmed Black people. In the summer of 2014, national attention focused on protests in the city of Ferguson, Missouri after Mike Brown was shot by a police officer. Mass protests broke out again in Baltimore, Maryland in April 2015, less than two months before the Charleston shooting, after Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained in the back of a police transport van. When Dylann Roof murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston in an act of explicit white supremacist violence, he galvanized a movement that was ready to mobilize for change.