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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Symbols Matter

Rev. Earle J. Fisher.

By Rev. Earle J. Fisher, Special to TSDMemphis.com

“It won’t change anything.”

Not immediately.

“Don’t you have better things to worry about than statues?”

Yes…and no.

There are critics of removing the Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis statues on both sides. Supporters of the Confederacy’s legacy say the statues represent history and heritage not hate.

Even those who are repulsed by the realities of Forrest and Jefferson’s connections to white supremacy, bigotry and slavery say racism will still exist in spite of the removal of any statues.

They’re right… in part.

What so many critics neglect in their analysis of our cause is that activist, organizers and social justice advocates know how to walk and chew gum at the same time. With comprehensive problems facing communities of color, those people at the front lines of The Movement for Black Lives (and what Tami Sawyer has dubbed #TakeEmDown901) have a legacy of attacking systemic oppression from multiple angles simultaneously.

We understand the statues are connected to a broader system and structure of white supremacy – one we intend to tear down in totality.

But, there’s something about the statue removal initiative itself that has been understated. The statues must be removed immediately because statues are symbols and symbols matter.

Symbols communicate a particular vision of our existence. Symbols impact our interpretations of the world and what we believe to be possible.

Symbols matter.

Over 4,500 years ago, in Egypt, near the ancient pyramids, the Great Sphinx of Giza was constructed. This is the oldest known monumental sculpture in the world. However, the current statue doesn’t look like it did initially.

Historical legend suggests that the statue was altered, defamed and disturbed when Napoleon issued a governmental and militaristic order for the nose of the Sphinx to be shot off. (I guess he didn’t want to wait for the French Historical Commission to give him permission.) The alleged rationale for this excursion was that Napoleon was irritated because the Sphinx symbolically represented the brilliance and bold strength of Africa.

Although this legend is historically untrue, the connection between symbols and sentiment is not.

Symbols matter.

Over 2000 years ago, a Black Palestinian Hebrew was executed by the State of Rome for sedition – starting a revolution. He was killed on a cross – the symbol of Roman oppression, legality and power. But, according to the Gospels, a few days later this political prisoner was raised from the dead.

Jesus – the Negro from Nazareth – altered, defamed and disturbed the symbol of the cross. Now, for many people of faith, the cross represents resistance, redemption and revolutionary possibility.

Symbols matter.

Sadly, the image of that Black Palestinian Hebrew has also been altered, defamed and disturbed. White supremacists co-opted Christianity. They’ve transformed the image of Jesus from black to white; from powerful to pale; from revolutionary to pacifist.

White supremacists know that symbols matter. Sawyer wrote of the Confederate statues, “These statues represent the gods from which white supremacists draw their inspiration.”


There is no coincidence that the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue – representing a white supremacists war criminal – was erected in the early 1900’s and conspicuously stands on a street named after the Union army (the ones who won the war). The statue rebelliously faces south.


Symbols matter.

These statues were constructed to communicate fear and terror to people of color who were beginning to establish themselves as first-class citizens during reconstruction. The statues were intended to remind black folks of the claim that “the south shall rise again.”

Those statues are symbolic and hellish reminders of the hatred, bigotry and white supremacy that remains stitched into the fabric of our city, country and culture.

That’s exactly why we need to get them the hell out of our public spaces….by any means necessary.

And any elected official, civic leader, pastor or president who is sympathizing with white supremacy (in theory, practice, or policy) needs to get the hell out of public office.

Now is not the time for tacit diplomacy and conventional appeals to the same legal structures that offer these statues protection from the will of the majority of the people.

We must remove them immediately because we need a better vision of what our city is and ought to be.

And just so we are clear, removing the statues is not the end goal. It’s symbolic. It will represent the inevitable dismantling of the entire system of white supremacy.

And it will come down…by any means necessary.

(The Rev. Earle J. Fisher is co-spokesman for the Memphis Grassroots Organizations Coalition and pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church.)

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