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  • Shannon Bontrager

History But Not Memory

Monument to Jewish victims of the French Government who placed people in the Drancy internment camp before deporting the victims to Germany

Monuments are historical and memorial but not in the way that most people think. Monuments are historical but do not represent history. The historical value of a memorial is its ability to document a place and time when a collective memory was made. Monuments cannot document past events. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., for example, cannot tell us anything about what actually happened in the Vietnam War even though it documents the names of soldiers who died in the conflict. The memorial cannot provide a history of the Vietnam War, but it can provide a history of when and how we remember the conflict. The history of monuments is often elusive because shrines often take the physical shape depicting a historical event leading people to believe that the monument documents an actual incident. But a monuments’ historical value mostly resides in the making of the monument itself, that is to say, in the proposing, financing, constructing, and placing the memorial. After the monument is attached to the pedestal, the history of the monument mostly ends. Monuments hold very little if any historical value when it comes to the actual events that are carved into them because they are not capable of documenting the event. Somewhere around the moment of dedication, the monument’s history ends and its memory begins. That is to say that although a monument cannot represent historical events, it can represent how people remember the past. This kind of collective remembering is called cultural memory and it refers to the way that communities, in an official capacity, choose to remember. Legislators in the state of Georgia have seemingly confused history with memory in their latest overreaching attempts to preserve Confederate monuments.

Senator Jeff Mullis (R-District 53), a member of the Senate Committee for Economic Development and Tourism and whose district includes the Chickamauga Battlefield National Park, introduced Senate Bill 77 (SB 77) in February 2019. Senator Mullis successfully navigated the bill through the Senate and his Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives approved the bill in late March. The bill proposes to protect all monuments in the state, including Confederate monuments, from being vandalized or removed from public setting. Any sort of defacement or removal will result in a financial penalty three times the cost of fixing or replacing the monument including state attorney’s fees and court costs. Local communities who wish to remove a Confederate monument, are prohibited from doing so by the State government. They can only remove a monument to an alternative location that is equal in “prominence, honor, visibility, and access.” In defense of his bill, Senator Mullis claimed he wanted to “promote our history and to save it.” “I think it is time to protect our history,” the Senator said, “good, bad, or indifferent, its what created our state.” He continued, “coming from a town of Chickamauga that’s full of history, it only makes sense for me to carry this bill, and I’m proud to do so.”[1] In this sentiment, we can all agree to save our history. The problem is that SB 77 does not accomplish this task.

Senator Mullis’s desire to save our history (a sentiment that I share with the Senator) would be better expressed in a bill that acquires new funding lines for history programs or increasing historians’ wages throughout the state’s public education systems. Critics of the bill accuse SB 77 of actually failing to protect history precisely because it protects Confederate memories. Especially at a time when controversy rages over the Decatur Confederate obelisk, the Stone Mountain Confederates, and the many Confederate monuments raised throughout the state, the history of these monuments is clear: they were not proposed, financed, built, or dedicated during the days of the Civil War rather, the history of these monuments resides in the Jim Crow days of segregation in the early twentieth century. They were built by communities who sought to preserve a false Confederate memory of the past, a memory that celebrated the Lost Cause, white supremacy, and reminded African American people to stay on their side of the Color Line. In defending Georgia’s Confederate monuments, it seems that politicians have misunderstood the difference between history and memory and this needs to be corrected. Senator Mullis seeks to save history but what this will actually accomplish is to save a mythologized memory of the Civil War. SB 77 legally prevents local governments from remembering the past on their own terms because it forces people to accept a myth in place of “history.” In fact, the law makes it more difficult not only to remove monuments from public places but also for people to replace the mythology of the Lost Cause because the bill makes it more difficult for people to remember the past in ways that bypass the false memories of segregationists at the last century’s turn. It makes the load of remembering so burdensome as to discourage it from happening altogether. The message in this bill is one that seeks to separate the present from the historical past which was exactly what segregationists hoped to accomplish in building the monuments in the first place: to hide the past of emancipation and reconstruction with a memory of segregation and white supremacy.

Although SB 77 protects civil rights monuments and other war monuments, the bill fails to distinguish correctly between history and memory. Civil rights monuments tend to clearly bring the past into the present because they reveal the very memories that Confederate monuments mean to obscure. What is historical about Confederate monuments is that they are artifacts of a time when segregation reigned supreme and we should preserve them as evidence to document a time when Georgians embraced memories of segregation and racism throughout the state. We should indeed acknowledge the history of these monuments. But we should not embrace the memories that they represent. If Georgia cannot find a way to creatively build a cultural memory that understands how monuments function historically and commemoratively, Georgians will not be able to effectively confront the past nor understand the actual history that created the state. History is not embedded in an artifice of marble. No matter if a monument is torn down or not, history cannot be changed by adding or subtracting memorials. What can be changed are memories and the first step to changing cultural memory is to produce memorials that bring the past into the present and contextualize (even if that means removal to another less prominent location) memorials that obscure the past from reaching into the present.

[1] Lawmakers on GPB Television, 19 March 2019,, accessed 5 April 2019.

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