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Americans take a hard look at confederate era memorials

Confederate era statues, monuments and plaques are facing renewed scrutiny and are being removed or there are calls for their removal across America.

world Updated: Aug 19, 2017 07:18 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
confederate,Charlottesville,Dred Scott
Workers put the monument dedicated to US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney on a flatbed truck after it was removed from outside the Maryland State House, in Annapolis, Maryland, on Friday.(AP)

In the quiet of the night on Wednesday, Baltimore, a black-majority city in Maryland state, got rid of four statues of confederate figures, including one of Robert E Lee, the general who is enjoying new celebrity lately. The operation was carried out stealthily and swiftly to avoid a repeat of Charlottesville.

Also in Maryland, lawmakers have voted to take down a statue of Roger Brooks Taney, the country’s fifth Supreme Court chief justice, who delivered the majority opinion in the historic 1857 Dred Scott ruling that African Americans could never become citizens of the US. And New York City is scrubbing out all confederate names from its streets.

Confederate era statues, monuments and plaques are facing renewed scrutiny and are being removed or there are calls for their removal across America —Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and Massachusetts—after the Charlottesville clashes on Saturday claimed three lives, one of whom died when a car, with a white supremacist at the wheel, plowed through the counterprotestors; 19 others were injured.

“It is fair to say that there is more attention on the issue now than there has been for many years,” Ilya Somin, professor of Law at George Mason University who has written on the issue, told HT. “There was also widespread debate about the Confederacy in the 1950s and 1960s (during the Civil Rights movement) and in the decades immediately following the Civil War.”

And as before, there are those who have argued for the memorials to be left alone, as part of the country’s history and heritage, good, bad or ugly. President Donald Trump, whose election in November has unleashed a fresh wave of racial tensions and emboldened white hate groups, is among them, with the neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and the white supremacists.

“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!,” the president wrote in multiple posts on Twitter on Thursday, adding, “Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”

A statue of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, a well-known confederate general like Lee, was among the four taken down in Baltimore that night. But George Washington, the first president, and Thomas Jefferson, the third, are both safe, despite the president’s warning.

But others, and that’s a steadily growing tribe, have argued for the need for the nation to confront its history. Calling for the removal of the statue of chief justice Taney, Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan said in a statement, “While we cannot hide from our history—nor should we—the time has come to make clear the difference between properly acknowledging our past and glorifying the darkest chapters of our history.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups and other extremists, counted 1,503 confederate place names and other symbols in public places in 2015. That included 718 monuments and statues, 109 public schools named for Lee and other confederate icons; 80 counties and cities named for Confederates.

There are 10 US military bases named after confederates, including three of the largest military bases in the world – Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, and Fort Benning in Georgia. Pentagon has refused to answer questions about plans to rename them in the wake of the new debate.

So where do you draw the line? How much can be undone? “It is hard to figure out the exact place to draw the line. But I think, at the very least, governments should not continue to honour historical figures whose main claim to fame was perpetrating large-scale injustices,” said Somin, citing the example of Eastern European countries that “were justified in taking down monuments to communist rulers, and the Germans were right to take down Nazi monuments”.

The last time Americans were confronted with the issue in a significant way was in the aftermath of the killing of nine African Americans at an iconic black church in South Carolina by white supremacist Dylann Roof in 2015. There were calls for removing a confederate flag from the grounds of the state government’s offices in the capital city.

First Published: Aug 19, 2017 07:14 IST