Monumentally Perplexed

civil-war-memorialDiscussing the elephant in the town square.

By Phillip Ratliff

Birmingham is a city of monuments. Atop Red Mountain there’s a bare-bottomed pagan god gazing proudly at his spearpoint. In his shadow, at Five Points South, a bronze ram spins stories while a Prohibition era Protestant minister prays fervently for a besotted city.

None of these civic icons arrived by happenstance. Citizens raised money and commissioned artists to create them, with clear intent and in a discernible context. A cohort that included Chef Frank Stitt, Mayor Richard Arrington, and philanthropist Cecil Roberts commissioned Frank Fleming’s Storyteller as a memorial to murdered art dealer Malcolm McRae. Civic boosters raised money to build Giuseppe Moretti’s Vulcan—to advertise the city’s industrial prowess to St. Louis World’s Fair attendees. A federal grant funded George Mitchell’s white marble interpretation of Brother Bryan, to honor his ministry to the city’s poor.

These statues embody the souls of the artists and the community that nurtured them into existence. Once erected, these statues can also take on a life of their own. The resemblance of the Storyteller to various Baphomet statues popping up nationwide (often near public displays of Ten Commandments monuments) has not escaped notice of some. In my time as Vulcan Park’s education director, I occasionally encountered individuals who took issue that public funds went to supporting a half-naked pagan. There’s but one God, one letter read, and he’s not the god of the forge. Others, as if to underscore this point, would like to see Brother Bryan at the Vulcan overlook, baptizing the city with a gaze more triumphalist than supplicatory.

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, controversy has surrounded another one of Birmingham’s public monuments, the Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument in Linn Park. How we resolve the controversy is a test for our city. The future we chart for our Confederate monument is the future we envision for our city as a whole.

Like Vulcan and the Storyteller, the 52-foot sandstone obelisk has a history. Architect Charles Wheelock designed the monument in the 1890s. City leaders dedicated the base at the 1894 gathering of Confederate veterans, loading the plinth with a Confederate battle flag, a Bible, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, and lists of various Confederate organizations. The date of the gathering, April 26, was the anniversary of General Joseph Johnston’s surrender to Union General William Sherman at Bennett Place. (Read the thorough entry in for further context.)

The United Daughters of the Confederacy donated the monument to the city in 1905. It stands apart from the generic mass productions adorning Southern parks and town squares. Forged by Northeastern ornamental ironworks, near-exact duplicates of Union soldiers are sometimes controversial for the inaccurate depictions of their uniforms and gear. Though clearly the work of a classical architect—Wheelock & Wheelock designed such stolid structures as the Steiner Building, the Church of the Advent, and the magnificent courthouse that once stood next to the Cathedral of St. Paul—the Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument expresses an artist’s vision as well as a society’s.

Both viewpoints deserve to be explored. The Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument delivers an array of contexts and meaning. There is the intent of the Daughters of the Confederacy and the boosters and donors who rallied to their cause. Were they motivated to create the memorial by common Reconstruction era fears of loss of privilege and cultural relevance? Did their motivations cross the line, from racially insensitive to an assertion of white privilege and power? Probably, though this is admittedly more inference than bold, straight line.

These contexts and intentions need to be unearthed through interpretation, authored by curators or other scholars with museum training. Such scholars also need to exhaustively consider reception, how people have understood the Confederate monument over the years. Birmingham installed the memorial some 40 years after the end of the Civil War. That’s roughly the span between now and the premiere of Saturday Night Fever. The memories of the war were surely still fresh, the resentments still raw. In more recent times, the memorial has taken on new meanings. Some citizens see the memorial as a symbol of human virtues like honor, courage, and duty. These virtues, the thinking goes, operate apart from the moral difficulties of the Confederacy. For others, these moral difficulties are insurmountable. The Confederate monument, like a Nazi flag or a hammer and sickle, will never shake off the brutality of the political systems they represent. A comprehensive story of our responses to this monument needs to be told, not to create moral equivalences between these various perspectives, but to hold up a mirror so that we can see our collective “self” more clearly. 

I realize that many will find wanting the open-ended didactic of this approach. The city’s Confederate memorial needs to be taken down, they’d argue. Under current state law, de-installation is not possible, however, and Mayor William Bell’s quick fix, covering the monument with plywood, may or may not pass legal muster. To address present realities, I’d like to also propose a complement to scholarly interpretation: artistic reinterpretation. For this approach, the city would commission a work or set of works to stand by or around the memorial. An artist or group of artists would reframe the memorial’s original messages, exploring ideas like racial unity, love conquering hate, a new city rising, or more pointedly, the vanquishing of the Confederacy and the ushering in of a new era of multicultural cooperation.

Isn’t that a more accurate framework for understanding and expressing our city? Birmingham is a post-Civil War phenomenon, with a population that is almost three-quarters African American. It is perverse that Birmingham must, by virtue of state law, display a monument so counter to the sensibilities of so many. A city, like its citizens, is owed the dignity of self-definition. Montgomery lawmakers shouldn’t limit this ability. Birmingham needs to take back its voice. This will require some creativity, but Birmingham has no shortage of that.

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