Like Richmond, Atlanta has had its share of debates and arguments over the many Confederate monuments scattered throughout the city. Unlike Richmond, however, Georgia’s capital city seems ready to confront its past.
During the tense aftermath of Charlottesville, in late 2017, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed created a commission to determine what to do about the city’s statues. Georgia state law prohibits such monuments from being removed or obscured, so the commission suggested adding markers providing context either at the base or near the monuments. The city council approved the measure in May. Installation of the panels began on Aug. 2.
The inscriptions on them define slavery as the cause of the Civil War and provide descriptions of the discrimination and segregation waged on African Americans for generations after the war ended. At the Peace Monument in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, one of the two panels placed there describes African American struggles and achievements from Reconstruction through the early 20th century.
Atlanta, the unofficial capital of the New South, is the first city in the country to add such context to its Civil War monuments. Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center and a key member of the mayor’s committee, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “This city has chosen not to stay silent about the monuments in our midst. We’re going to tell the truth.”
Atlanta might be the first U.S. city to address its past in such a way, but in 2018, the RTD printed the editorial “A lesson from Prague” about a similar story of reconciliation in the capital of the Czech Republic. It begins with a crucifix erected in 1657 on Prague’s historic Charles Bridge. In 1696, Elias Backoffen, a leader of the city’s Jewish community, was punished for failing to remove his hat when he passed beneath the cross. He was forced to pay for a plaque that was added to the crucifix with the inscription, written in Hebrew, reading “Holy, holy, holy is our Lord.” The words are from the prophet Isaiah, who is sacred to Judaism. The remarks were intentionally chosen to insult Prague’s Jewish population. For more than 300 years, the bronze plaque stood, in silent mockery of the city’s Jews.
That is, until March 8, 2000, when three additional plaques were added to the crucifix, one each in English, Hebrew and Czech reading: “The addition to the statue of the Hebrew inscription and the explanatory texts from 1696 is the result of improper court proceedings against Elias Backoffen, who was accused of mocking the Holy Cross.”
Unfortunately, anti-semitism, the oldest of hates, still survives in Prague just as racism does here, but there are changes. On Nov. 10, 2007, the 69th anniversary of Kristallnacht, 400 neo-Nazis gathered in Prague to stage a re-enactment of that horrific night. To their surprise, they were met by the city’s mayor, its police force and hundreds of Czech citizens, most wearing bright yellow stars on their chests.
Maybe it’s time for the capital of the Old South to follow suit. If Atlanta and Prague can come to terms with their pasts, so can Richmond.
— Robin Beres