Dolly Parton vs. the Ku Klux Klan
What if we tore down every statue and never built a new one?
There’s a bust of Confederate war criminal Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Tennessee state capitol building in Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Nineteen, and lawmakers are hemming and hawing about whether to take the thing down and put it in a museum.
Obviously they should do this. Better yet, why not melt it and sell the metal for scrap?
According to The Tennesseean, the white Republican state Rep. Jeremy Faison previously wanted to keep the bust in the Statehouse rotunda, but he had a change of heart after his African-American colleague Rep. G.A. Hardaway pointed out Forrest’s career as a slaver, his complicity in the massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow, and his subsequent turn to racist terrorism as Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
(As a side note, I award no kudos to white politicians for engaging in conversations that could have been obviated by five minutes of reading Wikipedia.)
"Hitler has earned his place in history, but they don't put monuments of him in Germany anymore," Faison said. "There's plenty of people who are notable characters. That doesn’t mean they deserve to be in a place of honor."
White propagandists have been lying about slavery and the U.S. Civil War since Reconstruction, and the Confederate memorials that litter the Southern landscape are part of that project. The statues, busts, and flags were not put there to preserve history but to honor evil deeds.
Demolishing every last one would be the barest form of decency and the simplest first step toward truth and reconciliation, which is why the propagandists are digging their heels in every time a state or city exhibits common sense on the matter.
In Tennessee’s case, Gov. Bill Lee, who signed Nathan Bedford Forrest Day into law in July, evidently wants to keep the Forrest bust in its place of honor. Faison is proposing that the state replace Forrest’s bust with another one, perhaps of Tennessee suffragette Anne Dudley Dallas, or of an enslaved person who built the Statehouse, or of country music star Dolly Parton.
The Dolly Parton proposal was the one that grabbed headlines outside of Tennessee. As far as state heroes go, Dolly is widely beloved and more or less morally unimpeachable. She’s an inspiration to folks who grew up in poverty, a feminist icon, and one of the greatest living songwriters to boot.
Viscerally, I feel a thrill when I read headlines like “Dolly Parton statue may replace KKK leader memorial at Tennessee Capitol.” I named my cat after Dolly Parton; my instinct is to yell “Hell yeah” from the rooftop.
And yet I have to say it shows a lot of hubris to erect a statue of someone while they’re still alive. We scarcely know how history will remember anyone.
We do this all the time. I went to a high school that named its football stadium after its then-current coach. I live in a county that’s naming a new library after a current mayor. Why? Who is this for? What could we possibly know about posterity?
What if we tore down every statue of a human being and never built one again? What if we pried every name off of every bridge, building, and highway? What would be the downside? Name them all after birds and move on, I say.
Whenever some local government starts to reckon with its Confederate statuary problem, I think about all the Joseph Stalin monuments that people tore down after the fall of the Soviet Union. In Lithuania someone opened a sculpture garden to hold all the statues of the old butcher, alongside recreations of gulags and guard towers. In Hungary, Budapest’s Memento Park serves a similar function.
"As countries grapple with their unsavoury pasts and consider the rightful place of their controversial monuments, the park offers an alternative model to museums or destruction,” The Economist wrote of Lithuania’s Grūtas Park in 2017.
The thing about the Confederate statues, though, is that they aren’t even from the era of the Confederacy. People commissioned them long after the war, including a rash of new statues during the mid-century civil rights movement that sought to right the wrongs of the Confederacy and Jim Crow. Tennessee’s Forrest bust didn’t appear until 1973.
When it comes to the Confederate idols, a sculpture garden won’t do. I propose a simpler policy of all-out iconoclasm.
City governments should smash the things publicly. Blow them up like the swastika above the rally grounds in Nuremburg. Pull them down with ropes like the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square. Shoot off some bottle rockets; strike up the marching band; have a little fun with it.
What I don’t have patience for is political hand-wringing. When South Carolina’s ruling class finally removed the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds after a white supremacist terror attack in 2015, then-Gov. Nikki Haley toed the party line in a speech, declaring that racists had “a sick and twisted view of the flag.”
“We do not need to declare a winner and loser,” she said.
Yeah, no, actually we do. For the sake of truth, for the sake of healing, it’s past time to declare a moral victor.
Haley, who had defended the flag until 2015, received several rounds of back-pats from our country’s center-right media for her supposed leadership in removing the flag. In recent interviews promoting her new memoir and whatever political move she’s making next, she has been asking the public to pat her on the back again.
I’ll reserve my praise for Bree Newsome, the artist who scaled the flagpole two weeks before the official removal and snatched the flag down herself, then recited the Shepherd’s Psalm as officers handcuffed her and led her away.
I’ll reserve my praise for Muhiyidin d’Baha, who saw provocateurs waving the flag in Charleston and leapt over police tape to tear it down.
I’ll praise the moral courage of our politicians when I see it.
The images used in this issue are in the public domain. They are as follows:
“The war in Tennessee : Confederates massacre Union soldiers after they surrender at Fort Pillow, April 12th, 1864” by Frank Leslie (1821-1880)
“Stalin monument in Grūtas park, Grūtas village, Lithuania” by Wojsyl, 2005
“Swastika blasted from the Nazi party rally grounds - Nuremburg (1945)” from the film “Secret Life of Adolf Hitler.”