Leave it to a hilarious Brit to put an American controversy in perspective. On Sunday, John Oliver, the UK-born host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight delivered a clear and complete primer on why America’s monuments to the Confederacy should be torn down.
The segment, which has since gone viral, is bolstered with statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Oliver uses them to spotlight the surge in the building of Confederate monuments, which took place not in the time immediately following the Civil War, but in the early 1900s—at the beginning of the Jim Crow era—and in the 1950s and ’60s during the civil rights movement. (As artnet News’s own Ben Davis pointed out, the statues were erected as part of a campaign to reassert white cultural dominance across the South.)
The crux of Oliver’s argument is that “monuments are not how we record history,” as many have suggested. “Books are, museums are, Ken Burns’s 12-part documentary series are. Statues are how we glorify people,” he says. To illustrate the point, Oliver offers up alternate statues of remarkable figures from southern history, including Robert Smalls, who escaped slavery to become and five-term congressman; and Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman pilot. There’s even a cameo from fellow late-night comedian—and southerner—Stephen Colbert, who stands atop a plinth spouting fun facts about his home state of South Carolina (home to America’s first free library!). Watch the whole segment above for a lesson worth learning.
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