Let’s commission or buy more historic statues of Civil War or civil rights heroes. Good ones! Great ones!

One of the more complex and fraught cultural issues arising these days is the removal of (largely) Confederate statues. Some are being toppled and at least partly destroyed. I’m all for the long-overdue change in culture, in response to our urgent times. This need is no better addressed than in this recent Op-Ed by poet and author Caroline Randall Williams in The New York Times, powerfully underscored in a dark symbolism, dwelling in the statues’ heroic posturings. Here (via Daily Kos) is a link: NYT Op-Ed on Confederate statues

The Times headline defiantly declared “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument.”

Williams continued with the startling lead:

 I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.

She went on to explain:

I am a black, Southern woman, and of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists…

Poet and author Caroline Randall Williams wrote a scathing commentary recently on the dark underbelly of Confederate statues for The New York Times. Courtesy Nashville Scene.

Amen to that. However, I’m also in the camp of those who think Confederate statues should be moved to museums, and submitted to proper historical contextualization and commentary. And partly given my undergrad degree was in art, with a concentration on sculpture, I have a bias towards preserving public art of historical significance, the good, bad and sometimes even the ugly..

The issue reached a razor’s edge that bled into the absurd recently in Madison, Wisconsin, where I lived and worked for nearly 20 years, as an arts reporter for The Capital Times. So I was greatly saddened see that Wisconsin’s “foreword” statue, long situated on the Capitol Square, was knocked over, and thrown in Lake Mendota. And that the statue of renowned abolitionist and union soldier Hans Christian Heg – a Norwegian immigrant who knew the meaning of being an other, and who died fighting to end slavery – was knocked down and dragged down the street. These were acts of little more than self-righteous ignorance, or worse, perhaps racist subversion.

Several of my friends suspect this was the handiwork of a Neo-Nazis or White Supremacists infiltrating the Madison George Floyd civil rights protests. As one friend shrewdly observed, the guilty party scrawled the phrase “BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL” at the top of the deposed Heg sculpture’s base (see below). Here’s the thing. That phrase hasn’t been used by most African-Americans since the 1960s. It suggests this was a bogus and culturally lame attempt to place the blame on Black Lives Matter.

Base of the statue of abolitionist Hans Christian Heg in Madison, after the statue was torn down recently. Photo by Allison Garfield. Courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

On a related issue, I cannot agree with student activists who call for the removal of the beloved statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln, at the top of Bascom Hill on the UW-Madison campus. The bronze sculpture mirrors the grand marble sculpture of our 16th president seated in The Lincoln Memorial.

The controversy has to do with what we now call white supremacist comments that Lincoln made before the Civil War during the famous debates with Stephen Douglas. Yes, they are troubling, but history shows that Lincoln redeemed himself through his actions many times over, and indeed was a martyr for the cause of ending slavery. He  inspired Juneteenth Day with his Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves.

Such a leader should be judged by his actions, and such formal proclamations that carry great political weight, rather than by his worst comments, which reveal his racial biases (which we all have, to some degree). Remember too, it was the 1850s, upon which we can misapply our social standards begat by time. We know Lincoln realized that even he struggled at times to stay aligned with the better angels of his nature. And that he always considered slavery immoral and worth destroying with all the Union’s might.

As for what to do about politically historical statues in general, I prefer to think more constructively. If we replace Confederate statues, what should we commission or construct in their stead?

The issue of how to replace them was addressed creatively by six artists in a 2018 New York Times article, when the controversy over a Robert E. Lee statue arose in connection to the infamous Charlottesville clash of civil rights and white supremacists: The New York Times, Aug. 10, 2018, “Monuments for a New Era.”

 

But Madison and other cities could follow the example of Milwaukee, which last December purchased a bronze sculpture by the acclaimed black sculptor Radcliffe Bailey depicting W.E.B. DuBois, the great black writer, thinker, sociologist and civil rights activist. 1 The sculpture, titled “Pensive,” depicts DuBois seated in the same posture as Auguste Rodin’s celebrated “The Thinker,” and even mimics the early modernist Rodin’s rough-hewn modeling. The work was purchased as a gift to the city by Sue and Mark Irgens, and mounted this spring in its new location outside of the new BMO Tower, 790 N. Water St.

Radcliffe Bailey, Pensive, 2013, part of Sculpture Milwaukee 2019. © Radcliffe Bailey, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki for Sculpture Milwaukee

Milwaukee first experienced the quiet but indeed pensive power of the bronze figure in the 2019 MKE Sculpture exhibit mounted along Wisconsin Avenue. For me, it was the outstanding work in the exhibit, artistically and culturally, and I spotlit it in a blog posting, here:

Bronze sculpture of W.E.B. DuBois is highlight of Sculpture Milwaukee

The work’s conceptual lineage is deep, as Rodin’s original “The Thinker” depicted poet Dante Aligieri’s figure, drawing from the poet’s The Divine Comedy, and conceived as a figure contemplating Rodin’s massive tableaux sculpture, The Gates of Hell commissioned in 1880. The symbolic significance of the tableaux is not lost on our times, nor on DuBois’s, when he boldly stirred American consciousness on matters of race in the early 20th century, directly defying Jim Crow.

But the first of Rodin’s familiar monumental bronze castings of “The Thinker,” as a stand-alone sculpture, did not appear until 1904.

Works such as Bailey’s, completely in 2013, ought to be the standard we strive for in public art, especially on fraught matters as race relations or the Civil War. I would love to see Madison commission or purchase a monument to, say, the epic ex-slave biographer and leader Frederick Douglass, or the heroic Underground Railroad operator Harriet Tubman, or modern civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Or even a work commemorating the death of Emmett Till, which sparked the modern civil rights movement, sensitive as such a rendering might be.

We are in a time of extraordinary social upheaval and transformation, which may feel to too transitory for doubters of social progress. Still, I can think of few better ways we can celebrate such progress and permanently inspire its furtherance, than with bronze public sculptures that embody our history’s embattled nobility and, we pray, our future redemption in freedom and equality for all.

___________

1 News of the sculpture’s purchase, gifting and re-installation, as reported by Bobby Tanzilo of OnMilwaukee.com: https://onmilwaukee.com/ent/articles/irgens-pensive.html

The Day the United States Hanged a Woman — Mary Surratt

A Southerly Cultural Journal Vol. 3

“There is sobbing of the strong/And a pall upon the land/ But the people in their weeping/Bare the iron hand/ Beware the people weeping when they bare the iron hand.” — Herman Melville, “The Martyr” Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War

Amid a rousing theatrical comedy, a Derringer pistol bullet tore into the back of Abraham Lincoln’s head. Somewhere in the shadows of the tragedy stood Mary Surratt. The horror of John Wilkes Booth’s fanatical assassination of Lincoln turned the national government into a vindictive prosecutor and it most likely miscarried justice for Surratt, the first woman ever executed by the US federal government.

Mary Surratt

Nine Union military officers deemed her guilty of conspiracy in Lincoln’s assassination. Surratt however  doesn’t even earn an index mention in the exhaustive Oxford Guide to United States History.

Nevertheless her case is the most controversial legal decision to emerge directly from the assassination. The recent Robert Redford-directed film The Conspirator, now out on video, brings the hanged woman back to life in one of the most compelling historical dramas in recent memory.

It is a tragedy of the South – especially of a border Civil War state — Maryland, not unlike Missouri where I visited recently — both with complicated Civil War legacies. It speaks to the unpredictable ways that a wounded   democracy can assert itself, all too often in perversions of our Constitutional ideals.

And it is a story of womanhood wronged by political blood lust for revenge. At a time when a woman still could not vote, Surratt became a sacrificial lamb for a nation understandably lashing out. President Andrew Johnson limited voting to white men who “assured the dominance of lawmakers unsympathetic to the rights of free people,” writes Michael Les Benedict. 1 This led to the reviled “black codes” which “circumscribed black southerners’ civil rights.”

And the Surratt trial also speaks to our post 9/11 era of sometimes reactive persecution of whomever might satisfy the lust for vengeance, disguised as justice for the sake of security.

The nine-man military commission appointed by Johnson to investigate the assassination  “was illegal in the sense that it should have been a civilian rather than the military proceeding “ and “seemed to be interested in vengeance, not truth,” Kenneth Davis writes 2.

The Conspirator reveals that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) will settle for either Mary Surratt or her son John, who successfully eluded capture and was most likely an actual conspirator.

Robin Wright magnificently embodies the eloquently stoic suffering of Surratt, who spends a long time in jail as her case is processed. In reality Surratt suffered from extreme menstrual pain during this period.  This somewhat unseemly reality is glossed in the film which has her on a hunger strike which threatens her health.

Also excellent is James McAvoy as the young attorney Frederick Aiken, a former Union officer who is convinced of Surratt’s guilt though appointed to defend her. He gradually comes to understand the trial’s  injustice and fights valiantly, even despite Mary’s enigmatic recalcitrance.

Why is Surratt important? Because at a crucial point in our nation’s psychic history she showed how vulnerable our citizens and judicial system are to corruptions of self-righteousness.

It was like executing the mother of an accomplice of Lee Harvey Oswald because you couldn’t find the right man. Surratt ran a boarding house not far from the Ford Theater where she admitted John Wilkes Booth met with other men repeatedly before the assassination.

All the evidence against her was circumstantial. Knowing Booth, carrying a message for him to Lloyd (to have “the shooting irons” ready) and failing to recognize conspirator Lewis Powell one evening (after the assassination; she had poor eyesight) was the sum of the case against her, “none of which constituted a crime,” wrote historian Laurie Verge 3. Many testified that Surratt was actually loyal to the Union and took the “conspiratorial” trip in question only to collect debts owed her husband.

“She was simply an unsuspecting pawn of John Wilkes Booth,” Verge concludes.

Conspirator Lewis Powell a.k.a. Lewis Payne 

Given the ambiguity of her guilt, the real question is whether the gallows was the proper sentence for her. Thirty-one people testified for Surratt’s defense.  Among nine prosecution witnesses, only two provided notable testimony:  John Lloyd, who denied Surratt’s guilt then changed his story, and Louis Weichmann, who witnesses said was extremely intoxicated the night of the assassination but managed to fix a wagon wheel for Surratt.

President Johnson overturned Aiken’s writ of habeas corpus for a civil trial, (a war-era administrative power ironically enacted by Lincoln) and then denied seeing the clemency plea signed by five members of the commission. These circumstances became issues in his impeachment proceedings two years after Mary’s execution.

On July 7, 1865, at 1:15 P.M., a military procession led the four condemned prisoners through the courtyard and up the steps to the gallows. Each prisoner’s ankles and wrists were bound by manacles. Mary Surratt led the way, wearing a black bombazine dress, black bonnet, and black veil. More than 1,000 people—including government officials, members of the U.S. armed forces, friends and family of the accused, official witnesses, and reporters—watched.

Lincoln_conspirators_execution. (Mary Surratt hanging on left in gallows).

 

Powell, whose dagger failed to kill Secretary of State William Seward, swore to Surratt’s innocence shortly before he was hanged. “The worst pretense of all was to imagine the Civil War over,” writes historian Walter McDougall. The North “embraced the myth that the nation’s sins had been purged by the blood of their soldiers and president.” 4

Thus purged some became avenging angels. Director Redford infuses The Conspirator with deep shafts of sepia light evoking the “magic realism” of the proceedings and as  beacons for the truth in an era when men could bury it in the cold tombs of intransigent,  pompous hatred.

With all the technology that assists us today, DNA testing included, the truth and justice can still be just as elusive.

And sadly, violence — both legally codified and criminal — against women remains a topic of serious debate in 2012.

 

1 Michael Les Benedict “Mary Surratt” The Oxford Guide: United States History, Ed. Paul Boyer, 2001 Oxford University press, 406

2 Kenneth C Davis Don’t Know Much About the Civil War Avon 1996 415

3 Laurie Verge, The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln And the Trial of Its Conspirators, A Special Edition Of The Trial Transcripts. Ed. Edward Steers Jr. 2003 University Press of Kentucky.

4 Walter McDougall, Throes of Democracy: the American Civil War Era 1892 to 1887, HarperCollins, 2008, 492