About Those Monuments (and Streets, and Entryways, and Schools…)

The Drive to Correct Old Wrongs is Exactly Right – But Expect Problems

Will We, at Last, Do the Right Thing?

It seems that most, if not almost all, confederate monuments are coming down. Most by formal governmental action, almost all by citizen demand, some by mob action. More on that last category in a moment.

The discussion of why these things need to come down has taken root. The most recent poll shows that a majority of Americans (52%) agree they should come down. That percentage will continue to grow. In my own home area, local government asked the question about two such monuments in a public square. About 550 people called or wrote in to say take them down now. Ten people said do not remove them. That ratio is likely a bit skewed but seems to reflect what people feel and think. Now is the time. Fifty years ago was the time, but here we are, so let’s do the right thing now.

Where Do We Draw the Line?

I have friends who ask the question, “Where do we stop this? Do we rename all the affected streets, all the schools, etc.? How far does this thing go?” I see that question asked in print and in social media as well. In fairness, I can see how one comes to that question if this seemed to pop up on you out of nowhere. Whoa, they say. Let’s talk about this. Study it some more. Let us come to a consensus. I understand the feeling, but it is too often a stalling tactic for what needs to be done.

I will share with you my answer to that question, Where do we stop this? For me, the start point is elsewhere than where we stop. Look at this issue as follows and you will know how far it goes.

First, what is the point of such monuments, or the naming of schools? In every example one can imagine, it is to honor the individual which the item celebrates. By extension, it honors their work. If someone knows of a Hitler High School, so named so we would not forget the horrors, let me know. I have not seen it. Is there a Jeffrey Dalmer Food Court in some shopping mall? I think not. We note such people in museums, not in public squares.

The follow-on question, based on our understanding of the first question, is clear. Is it right to so honor people whose claim to fame was treason against the United States? Treason for the primary reason of continuing the enslavement of human beings. Can we agree that this is not the right thing to do? Can we acknowledge what such things in our public space says to Black Americans? Is what these statues say unacceptable to all, now that we see it? Then we know the answer to that first question, where does it stop?

It Stops When We Get Them All Done

The statues are to be gone, sent to museums and cemeteries, or destroyed. Rename schools, roads, all of them. Please start with the 10 US Army posts named after Confederate officers. Those bothered me for the 30 years I was on active duty; they still do.

Is that a lot to be have done? Yes. Will it entail costs and administrative burdens? Yes. Get over it.

This is a moral question, one we too long denied and now we have a chance to get right. Let’s get on with it and do a full job of the task. There is no rationale to do only some of them. This is not denying history, it is putting it in the right context. Let us no longer celebrate racist treason under the guise of “our heritage.” I am a born and raised Southerner and what these things celebrate is not my heritage.

Good people made bad decisions; some likely felt they had no choice fighting for the wrong cause. I am sorry for that. But don’t ask me to celebrate them any more than I would celebrate German, Italian, or Spanish fascists. I can sympathize with the ordinary citizen in such circumstances. I will do more than that.

Our country was wrong to let these things go up in the first place. I understand the dynamics, the Lost Cause mythology that led to all this. Well, the rest of us finally are coming around to understand how wrong this is. We have some small inkling of what it must be like to be Black and look at one of these things every day of your life.

No more. Now we are aware; we can no longer claim ignorance. We know what is right. Let us complete the task.

Yeah, But What About the Riots and Vandals?

There are, inevitably, excesses and disagreements when movements like this come to life. It was a certainty that some would go beyond the removal of the obvious structures. Some would want to remove evidence of anyone who did wrong, irrespective of the rest of their lives.

For the most part, the momentum now is with cleaning up our past errors. There is, it seems to me, generally less excuse for mob action to take down a statue. Petitioning local authorities in most places will get a sympathetic ear these days. A bit of patience to do this within more general societal processes seems to me worth at least trying.

The recent destruction of a Grant statue is a case in point, in my view. I could see how Native Americans might want his statue removed. But this was a man who did a lot of good in his life, much of which is only recently acknowledged. Do we actually think this statue needs to go?

I feel the same about Christopher Columbus. As I learn more, I understand how others might feel differently. I am ready to have that discussion. It seems to me that blaming him for all that came afterwards is excessive. But let’s see what we can learn from each other.

Actually, Some of It IS Complicated

I am hopeful for a consensus that there are people in our history who did great things and that had deep flaws. Those, I would submit, can be both celebrated and condemned. We should be able to recognize it all. Thomas Jefferson is as good an example as could be. The Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase, for starters, shaped this country. The man who made these happen deserves celebration. That he owned slaves all his life is morally unacceptable. It was in his time found unacceptable by many of his peers. He failed, over an entire lifetime, to do the right thing.

I accept both parts of Jefferson. We can grateful beyond measure for his contributions. We must be appalled at his unwillingness to face the immorality of slavery. Surely in his heart and in his mind, he knew better. A great man. A terrible person. There we are.

I take some comfort that the celebration of our founders has come to a more holistic understanding. The history laid out at Mount Vernon now is dramatically different than what one saw even a decade ago. Same for Monticello. We are getting there.

Can We Work Our Way Through This?

I am hopeful that we will do the right thing going forward, as best we can. We should move quickly on the most obvious examples (I am talking about you, Monument Avenue, Richmond VA…). I hope that we can curb the excesses and can encourage acts of community rather than vandalism.

I read about one hopeful example just this week. Two groups, counter protesting in my hometown, confronted each other. Tensions were high, the potential violence was real. One group wanted to paint a message on a street, the other wanted the opposite message. Verbal confrontations ensued.

Then a funny thing happened. A couple of people on each side acknowledged where the other side was coming from. They said they could agree on some of that. The confrontation turned into a long conversation, one neither side would have predicted. Was it all Sweetness and Light? Did they join hands and sing Kumbaya? No, none of that happened. But some common ground was found, and some demonization got put on the back burner.

We can find our way, with a modicum of good will and commitment to find a way where possible. But make no mistake; we need to remove these things, now. I regret any cases of excess. But I will not agree that they constitute an excuse to stop removals generally.

We have crossed the Rubicon on this issue. Let us be done with it.

               Bill Clontz

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5 replies to About Those Monuments (and Streets, and Entryways, and Schools…)

  1. Hello, Bill. Thank you for this thoughtful essay, which I have shared on facebook. I’ve added my own thoughts there on a possible middle way to remove those monuments from public spaces.

    • Thanks, Cathy. No doubt this is something that will continue to challenge us to find the best ways forward towards the best outcomes. Probably not as important as other issues of policy, etc. but a visible component of our national conversation that we have to work through.

  2. Thanks Bill for this thoughtful essay. It is time to take them down and to put them in the history books. Both the good and the bad about each individual including I think Columbus and Jefferson. Let their deeds be relegated to a museum or history books. I have to wonder why do we need a statue of anyone in the public square? The fact that many of them are repositories for pigeon poop seems to tell us all we need. Create a space for them but probably don’t celebrate them. Because of my white privilege I have no idea at all what it must be like to drive down a street named after Lee or Davis or Columbus of Jefferson or attend a school with the same names and more or drive by a statue or monument as well. So let’s just take them down please and get on with the conversation. about race and privilege in our world. Just my humble opinion.

  3. Thank you, Bill. Eloquent as always.

    I grew up with a housekeeper (maid), whom I loved and adored.I always thought she was part of the family, and that I grew up “not seeing color”. How naive! I kept that thought until I read and saw the movie “Help”, which in its own way raised my awareness level (embarrassing).

    The statues are very similar. We don’t really see them, when they are such a part of our daily life. Again, HOW NAIVE! Those who see them daily as a reminder of the horrendous, negative part of our history surely see them for what they are. I feel I want to walk around apologizing for our history, and I am so glad we are finally doing the right thing!

    I am proud of much of our history and so embarrassed by so much of it…..especially the current part of it. The fact it took such an act of violence to even get us to think of, and hopefully do, the right thing simply shows how blind we have been to the pain of such a large part of our population. I would like to be around long enough to be proud once again.

    • As articulate and heartfelt a comment that has ever graced these pages. Thank you.

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