Michigan Journal of Race and Law
Mich. J. Race & L.
Hundreds of Confederate monuments stand across the United States. In recent years, leading historians have come forward to clarify that these statues were erected not just as memorials but to express white supremacist intimidation in times of racially oppressive conduct. As public support for antiracist action grows, many communities are inclined to remove public symbols that cause emotional harm, create constant security risks and dishonor the values of equality and unity. Finding a lawful path to removal is not always clear and easy. The political power brokers who choose whether monuments will stay or go often do not walk daily in their shadows. In recent years, eight Southern state legislatures enacted monument preservation legislation designed to thwart local removal efforts. These laws have prompted bitter conflicts, sometimes leading angry citizens to topple massive stone or bronze monuments themselves. The challenges present fertile ground for innovative lawyering. Creative applications of state property, nuisance and contract laws have led to removals notwithstanding the prohibitions of state preservation laws.
When state law blocks removal or contextualization, communities may look to federal law as a source for taking antiracist action. First Amendment doctrine governing expressive speech has not provided a fruitful solution. Despite the expressive nature of Confederate monuments, efforts to weaponize the First Amendment by both sides of the monument debate have failed, largely due to the government speech doctrine. Given the age and quality of most monuments, copyright law is also not likely to provide an effective federal claim.
The Federal Civil Rights Act offers an untapped but promising foundation for resolving these controversies. Title VI and Title VII could be used to challenge monuments that contribute to a hostile work or educational environment. Federal civil rights claims would supersede state legislation enacted to prevent removal of racially hostile symbols. Even when state law does not present removal barriers, communities who seek to take meaningful anti-racist action could ground their initiatives in the Civil Rights Act’s core value of equality. For all who are confronting this issue, this Article seeks to provide a legal and strategic framework for acknowledging history while reclaiming the symbolic heart of our public spaces and a means to assure that the symbols we elevate affirm shared contemporary values.