ST. LOUIS - Vandals have targeted monuments dedicated to the leaders and soldiers of the Confederacy, painting the slogan “Black lives matter” on memorials in a half-dozen states where the landmarks stand tall in parks and outside government buildings.
The graffiti reflects the racial tension that permeates post-Ferguson America, more than a week after a white man was accused of shooting and killing nine black congregants at a Charleston, South Carolina, church.
Michael Allen, a lecturer in American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis, compared the vandalism to the toppling of statues in Russia at the end of the Soviet empire.
“If the monuments are strong statements of past values, defacing them is the easiest and loudest way to rebuke those statements,” Allen said.
Confederate symbols including the rebel battle flag have been the subject of resentment for years. The anger boiled over after last week's massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The suspect, Dylann Roof, posed in photos with the Confederate flag.
Politicians throughout the South are taking steps to remove the flag from public places. Black activists say the monuments should meet the same fate.
One of the defaced monuments was the Confederate Memorial in St. Louis' Forest Park, 10 miles from Ferguson. The same graffiti was reported on memorials in Charleston; Baltimore; Austin, Texas; Asheville, North Carolina; and Richmond, Virginia. No arrests have been made.
Racial wounds in the U.S. were torn open last August, when a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed. Officer Darren Wilson was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the shooting raised new awareness about the treatment of blacks.
“Black lives matter” became a rallying call in protests that followed police shootings of black men in other cities, too. With the Charleston shooting refocusing attention on Confederate symbolism, experts said, it isn't surprising that some people would take out their anger on monuments to those who fought on the side of slavery.
Elizabeth Brondolo, a psychology professor at St. John's University in New York who studies the effects of race on mental and physical health, said the defacing of memorials reflects a “consensus that there's been a very serious failure of empathy, a failure to understand what these symbols might mean to people who suffered from slavery and ongoing aggression.”
Defaced monuments at the University of Texas in Austin and in Richmond honor Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Asheville monument pays homage to Zebulon Vance, a Confederate officer and later a governor and senator. Others, like the St. Louis memorial, are more generic tributes to those who fought for the South.
The future of the 32-foot-tall, 101-year-old statue in St. Louis was already in doubt. In April, Mayor Francis Slay ordered a study of what to do with it and asked for the review to be complete by the end of the summer. Options include altering the wording of the plaque, moving the monument out of Forest Park or removing it entirely.
The University of Texas in Austin is weighing options for its statues of Davis and other Confederate war heroes, with a decision expected by Aug. 1. Three of those statutes were damaged this week.
In Kentucky, both candidates for governor, along with other prominent political leaders, are calling for the Jefferson Davis statue to be removed from its prominent place in the statehouse rotunda and placed in a museum.
Efforts have also begun to seek removal of Confederate monuments in Nashville, Tennessee; Shreveport, Louisiana; Orlando, Florida; Portsmouth, Virginia; and Birmingham, Alabama.
Darrell Maples, commander of the Missouri chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the “citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America.”
He said altering or removing monuments is “divisive and unnecessary.”
Brandi Collins of the civil rights group ColorOfChange said the effort isn't about revising history.
“It's about saying that if we are truly about equity, about moving forward, we have to respect everybody who lives in and built this country,” she said.