As Monuments Come Down, Some Ask, ‘Where Does it End?’
WASHINGTON — In the nation’s capital, Democrats want to sweep away the marble statues on Capitol Hill honoring Confederate soldiers and politicians. In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio has a panel reviewing “symbols of hate,” such as the 76-foot-tall statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle.
Just two weeks ago, about 100 people gathered at Columbus City Hall to demand the city remove its three monuments to Columbus. Not to be outdone, the city of Los Angeles last week ended Columbus Day as a holiday.
The increasingly divisive debate on symbols from another era ignited last month after police charged a white supremacist from Ohio with murder in the death of a young woman as ultra-conservative marchers protested removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va.
To one side, these symbols commemorate an ugly past when millions of African-Americans were enslaved in the South and hundreds of thousands of Native Americans were killed by European explorers. The other side argues that it is part of a wave of political correctness that has veered out of control.
Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Columbus, said the meaning of some symbols isn’t worth preserving.
“I equate it to the day when my great-great grandmother tore up her papers for being a slave in the South,” said Beatty, who grew up in Dayton. “That allowed me to carry a driver’s license and a college degree. Those are the papers I carry.”
“I hope my grandchildren live in a better world where they’re looking back at the Confederate flag, a statue, as I look on slave papers,” she said. “I remember a time when all of these things that are symbolic caused real harm in the America that we live in.”
By contrast, Alfred Brophy, a professor of law at the University of Alabama, said he was “against taking all this stuff down. We need a reminder of the bad-old-days.”
“I understand the impetus behind it because it is a daily reminder of slavery,” Brophy said. “It may be we will get to the point where the public’s sphere is completely sanitized in that you don’t have anything that offends anyone.”
Although the controversy erupted in violence in Charlottesville during a march by white nationalists and neo-Nazis, the debate has long raged about the Confederate monuments and films such as Gone With The Wind and D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of A Nation, the latter which glorified the Ku Klux Klan.
The symbols are sprinkled across the United States. There is a Jefferson Davis Highway in Virginia named after the president of the Confederacy while Washington and Lee University in Virginia is named after George Washington and Robert E. Lee.
On Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., there are statues to such Confederate icons as Davis, and Generals Lee, Jeb Stuart and Stonewall Jackson, prompting the late comedian Robin Williams to quip, “Those are a lot of second-place trophies.”
Don Doyle, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, said when he moved to the South in 1974 he “couldn’t quite understand why the South was so interested in honoring and commemorating this war they had lost and seemed to me such a terrible mistake. It takes a while to get over these things and these monuments live on well past the ideas behind them die out.”
“Many of the monuments were put up in the heyday of Jim Crow in the 1890s and on into through the 1920s and they were understood to be a rebuke to Northern interference in southern race relations as well as symbols of the lost cause of the Confederacy,” Doyle said.
In Statuary Hall just off the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, a bronze marble statue of Lee was erected in 1903 by Virginia while in 1931 Mississippi opted for a statue of Davis.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced a bill to remove the nine Confederate statues from public property, which Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio and Beatty have promised to support, a move she said would “send a message that we will not tolerate discrimination and bigotry.”
Yet critics say Democrats are walking into a political trap with what they contend is a search-and-destroy mission to eradicate history. GOP political strategists say Democrats are running against the tide of American public opinion when they should focus on issues that matter to voters, such as job growth and education.
“If we apply a filter of today’s beliefs on historical figures, there are very few who will pass that test,” said Jessica Towhey, a former aide to former House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp.
She argued that President Franklin D. Roosevelt “who led the country through World War II, also created internment camps for Japanese citizens. We look at that today and shudder at how wrong it is. Statues, movies, books and cultural references help ground us in remembering our history while also seeing how far we’ve come.”
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, who opposes the Booker bill, said much the same thing about monuments to Columbus, asking “where does it end?”
Yet the American Historical Association last week struck back by saying removing monuments to Confederate officials “does not necessarily create a slippery slope” to eliminating memorials to the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
“George Washington owned enslaved people, but the Washington Monument exists because of his contributions to the building of a nation,” the association said.
Despite the uproar, many analysts believe most monuments will remain where they are, relics from another age which enrage some people and delight others.
“My guess is this stuff will blow over and the Columbus statue will stay there,” Brophy said. “I don’t know if makes sense to charge Christopher Columbus with all the genocide of the Native Americans that followed during the next four centuries.”