The passing of John Lewis, one of the last great icons of the U.S. civil rights movement, has served as a reminder that the torch of social justice has passed to a new generation. It also comes at a time when many Americans are reassessing which past leaders should still be venerated in bronze and stone. Two months after the police killing of a Black man in Minneapolis spawned mass protests, public images have been toppled with an intensity reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
More than 120 statues and fountains honoring the Confederacy have been dismantled. At least 14 monuments dedicated to people accused of genocide against Native Americans have fallen. Thirty-three statues of Columbus have been defaced or removed. So have nine statues of seminal figures such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Teddy Roosevelt. In many other countries, statues and street names of slave traders and colonial governors have met a similar response.
This challenge to the old certainties of history reveals a rapid shift in public thought. Already debate is underway about using the emptied pedestals to depict other figures as a way to achieve social reconciliation. Whose likenesses should be cast? Would a major flaw of an otherwise good person rule him or her out? Must a person’s inspiring words be reflected in personal actions?
Perhaps the most important question is this: What exactly are the purposes of venerating a person at all?
One answer to that question lies in the current social justice movement. Like other recent protest movements in Hong Kong, Chile, and Lebanon, the U.S. movement was designed by a few people to bring about social action without centralized leadership and through a heavy reliance on social media. The three women who launched Black Lives Matter, for example, emphasized individual agency and empowerment as the sustaining force.
This tactic of distributed leadership found an echo in at least one tribute to Congressman Lewis. Americans, said former President George W. Bush, “can best honor John’s memory by continuing his journey toward liberty and justice for all.”
There is still a place for holding up men and women whose lives promoted humanity’s advancement. Yet physical depictions of them hardly begin to capture higher qualities of thought that drove their achievements. Their successes relied on a receptivity and embrace of ideals that lifted others to join a cause and were sometimes heard for the first time.
At their best, statues can inspire contemplation of a life driven by high ideals and selfless endeavor. They can nudge people toward reason, conscience, and self-government. Such attributes are available to anyone, with or without a majestic bronze sculpture. The good they bring to others can be monument enough.