The Black Lives Matter movement’s goal was to challenge the culture of police brutality against African-Americans. But the killing of George Floyd has transformed it into a worldwide movement for racial justice in America and Europe. While laws against discrimination on the basis of race exist, there persist perceptions, habits and institutional structures that encourage brutal treatment of blacks by police. This worldwide movement has regenerated debate about race.
The movement has also sparked a re-look at historical iconography in American and European cities. There are strident calls for the states in the south of the US, known as Southern States to remove statues of confederate generals who fought on the losing side of the American civil war. Some states are also now debating the continued use of the confederate flag.
In the UK, the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in the city of Bristol was toppled by protesters and dumped into the harbour.
In Belgium, King Leopold’s statute in the city of Antwerp has been removed. Now, there are calls for the statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Oxford to be removed. Protesters have also aimed their wrath at the statue of Winston Churchill.
Not many people would argue against the removal of King Leopold’s statue. His ironically-named Congo Free State claimed thousands of lives and employed some of the cruellest methods to pacify the populace. Children’s hands would be chopped off as punishment to their ‘erring’ parents. And we thought that chopping off limbs of children started with Charles Taylor in Sierra Leone during that country’s brutal civil war.
But to what extent should we use today’s morality and political ideology to determine whether or not a statue of a particular icon remains on the streets and town squares around the world? What if tomorrow’s morality concludes that despite being an icon to many, Martin Luther King Junior’s statues should be removed from public places because he was an adulterer? What if protesters of the future argue, rightly or wrongly, that Nelson Mandela’s statues should be removed because he failed to dismantle structures that disadvantage blacks in South Africa?
History is not a pretty picture of a singular morality. It is a mosaic of the good, the bad and the ugly. We should be able to walk past iconography of people who represent history we do not approve of and others of people who represent our morals and politics. Walking down a street should be a walk through history, appreciating how history and society have progressed. There can be no greater appreciation of how far history has travelled than walking past the statue of imperial crusader Cecil Rhodes in Oxford to one of anti-colonial icon Nelson Mandela’s in Parliament Square in London.
Importantly, people should endeavour to change society and achieve in science and technology so that tomorrow statues of them can be added to the mosaic of the good and ugly of historical iconography.