Sunday Commentary: America, Tear Those Statues Down

Even before I read the column by Caroline Randall Williams in the NY Times yesterday, I was sold on the need to tear all of the confederate statues down—or at least put them in museums where they become history rather than monuments.

Read the column, it’s short.  My excerpts will not do this justice.  Williams writes, “I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.”

She says, “If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.”

She adds, “I am a black, Southern woman, and of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists. My very existence is a relic of slavery and Jim Crow.”

I increasingly believe that until this country owns up to what it has done in the past—slavery, Jim Crow—it can not address the relics and institutionalized vestiges of those into the future—mass poverty, income inequality, concentrated pockets of crime and mass incarceration.

Consider how America has treated its past compared to Germany and South Africa.  Truth and reconciliation.  No.  We have never had such a thing.  The Nuremberg Trials were followed by outlawing of the vestiges of Nazism.  No, we have never had such a thing either.  The most we have done is belatedly prosecute a few people for murders from the 1950s and 60s.

How do we acknowledge our errors and sins of the past if we continue to honor their legacy?

Earlier this week the New York Times had a very interesting article that started out chronicling the story of Greg Reese.  He is a white, stay-at-home father who lives in Campton, Kentucky.

Recently he peeled off the Confederate flag magnet he had placed on the trunk of his car six years ago.  He did not put it back on.

Writes the Times: “It was a small act for which he expected no accolades. It should not have taken the police killing of George Floyd, Mr. Reese knew, to face what he had long known to be true, that the flag he had grown up thinking of as ‘a beautiful trophy’ was ‘a symbol of hate, and it’s obviously wrong to glorify it.’”

The Times continues: “The sustained outcry over Mr. Floyd’s death has compelled many white Americans to acknowledge the anti-black racism that is prevalent in the United States — and to perhaps even examine their own culpability for it. It is as though the ability of white people to collectively ignore the everyday experience of black people has been short-circuited, at least for now.”

There will be calls in this country that we are erasing or canceling history.  That this is not the way to address systemic racism.  That mobs should not be the ones authorized to oversee justice.

I am sympathetic to the issue of mob rule but also understand that people’s patience has worn thin, that they are tired of waiting for public officials to act.  To me the issue is whether to remove the statues, while the means by how to do that is in most ways a red herring for me.

Removing statues of people like Robert E. Lee should not be a close call as these things go.

In my view we have whitewashed history.  In my view, slavery should be viewed on par with the Jewish holocaust.  I say that as a Jew.  We destroyed generations of Black people who were condemned to live life worse than we treat cattle.  That we didn’t systematically kill them should not absolve us of the magnitude of this atrocity.

This is not long ago either.  My grandmother was born in 1915.  When she was child, she would have lived among former slaves and former slave owners.  The legacy of slavery actually extended well beyond the Emancipation Proclamation.

As Douglas Blackmon captured in his brilliant book, Slavery by Another Name, loopholes in the 13th Amendment allowed for the re-enslavement of thousands of Blacks who were “leased” through forced labor camps operated by state and federal governments.  This was done with violations of the law as benign as failure to repay $5 worth of loans.

And of course we know the legacy of Jim Crow and now the legacy of mass incarceration that many now refer to as Michelle Alexander has, as the New Jim Crow.

But slavery itself needs a discussion here apparently.  For just under 250 years, from 1619 to 1865, millions of Blacks were kidnapped, taken across the ocean in conditions described in many accounts as simply beyond appalling, and enslaved for the rest of their lives.

At the height it was four million people.  We can easily estimate that the total numbers well exceeded 10 million people.

We are talking about brutal conditions.  I recently re-read Fredrick Douglass’ account of slavery, which he has called “the enemy of both the slave and the slaveholder.”

What emerges in his and other words is a picture of absolute subjugation—hard labor from dawn to dusk, every day, few breaks, chains, whippings, killings, rapes, torture, brutality … day after day, year after year, life after life, generation after generation for 250 years.

We have whitewashed just what this history was.  The legacy of this we live with today.  As Caroline Randall Williams points out this week, we are not just seeing the descendants of slaves in the Black people of today, we are seeing the descendants of their rapists and their slaveholders.

Now when we add in monuments to the Civil War’s Confederate heroes, we are also honoring acts of treason against American.  That’s right.  Robert E. Lee not only fought for the right of southern states to have slaves—bad enough—he committed treason.  Millions of people died because of this treason.

But there is a third point that weighs against the Confederate statues.  Their purpose.  These were not for the most part enacted in 1865 or even in the 1870s.

While groups ranging from President Trump to the Sons of Confederate Veterans defend the monuments as an important part of history, they rather date to two periods of time—the early 1900s and again in the 1950s and 60s.

A comprehensive study of Confederate statues and monuments across the country published by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016 bears that out, and the statues were enacted in response to two periods of extreme racism in the south.  During the 1910s, for example, we saw the renewed rise of the KKK and many brutal massacres of Blacks that culminated in 1921 in the massive race riot that destroyed a thriving Black Community in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The 1950s and 1960s saw the erection of these monuments in the face of the civil rights movement and yet another rise of the KKK and White Citizen Council (the white collar version of the Klan).

“Most of the people who were involved in erecting the monuments were not necessarily erecting a monument to the past,” said Jane Dailey, an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago. “But were rather, erecting them toward a white supremacist future.”

This is the history that people defending statues and monuments are protecting.  How do we live down the legacy of racism and the atrocities of slavery when we are still honoring their vestiges in parts of this country?

The Confederate flag continues to fly in much of the south, it is enshrined as the state flag of Mississippi and, yet, this is no benign history.  This is akin to flying the Nazi Flag in Nuremberg, Germany.  The sooner we recognize this, the faster we can achieve real and true reconciliation.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Ron Glick

    “For just under 250 years, from 1619 to 1865, millions of Blacks were kidnapped, taken across the ocean …”

    The last slave ship into the USA, the Clotilde,  arrived in Mobile Bay in 1859 although importation of slaves was outlawed  by all the states after Virginia outlawed it in 1778. Only South Carolina re-engaged with the practice legally after 1803. A Federal law, The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, was passed in 1807 and went into effect Jan 1, 1808.

    On August 5, 1975 Gerald Ford signed a congressional resolution restoring citizenship to Robert E. Lee. Of course Ford will be little remembered for this posthumous pardon of Lee especially when set against his in vivo pardon of Nixon.


  2. Ron Glick

    The question for me is where does it end? Of course Trump is exploiting that question by going to Mount Rushmore. Here in Davis people have called for taking down Ghandi. If we are going to do that shouldn’t we change the name of Covell Blvd too?

    The problem of where does it end can be made simple by limiting it to monuments glorifying those that took up arms against the USA. If we don’t stop there we will eventually have no statues at all as all people make mistakes. If we demand perfection for a person to merit a statue nobody will qualify.

    1. David Greenwald

      I think it would be better to have the discussion of who should be honored and how because we have not given it enough thought over the years. I see some clear cut easy calls and some grayer areas.

    2. Bill Marshall

      Reality is, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Patrick Henry were all traitors…

      George Washington vs. Lee… cases in point… both fought for the government… both fought against the government they fought for.  One died ‘land poor’… the other died with all his property taken by the government (you know it as Arlington)… guess if you are hero or scoundrel depends if your ‘side’ wins…

      1. Ron Glick

        Washington was land poor? His Mount Vernon estate was 8000 acres. He set 123 slaves free upon his death.

        Perhaps you are confusing Washington and Jefferson. Upon his death Jefferson couldn’t free his slaves even though they were his kids.

  3. Tia Will

    ” If we demand perfection for a person to merit a statue nobody will qualify.”

    I am wondering if that would be such a bad thing. I see singling out an individual to memorialize by public statue as an inherently divisive act since people’s perspectives will always differ. Our endless quest for heroes frequently leaves behind those of equal or greater contribution while honoring those the dominant group of the time deems heroic. Why  must we have public monuments instead of museum pieces that individuals can view if they choose, instead of forced upon all in public, both those who honor them & those who find them repugnant alike?

  4. John Hobbs

    Tolerance and self-awareness are necessary for navigating our diverse world. Just disagreeing with someone’s philosophy should not be cause to take down public art. Disagreeing with their actions is another matter and that should be a considered in a matter of context. I had a recent experience in a hospital operated by a religious corporation. In the lobby, in every corner, alcove or niche in the hallway wall, and in front of every patient’s bed, in sizes from larger than life to 12 inch miniature, the crucified Jesus was there. Eyes and hands turned to heaven or eyes closed head bowed, the presence was inescapable.  The layout of the wards was such that room numbers gave no clue as to your loved ones actual location, but after several days and three room changes I had a pretty good grasp of directions to the various rooms. as I waited in the lobby for my missus to be released, another guy about my age walked past a few times looking puzzled and since the nurses’ station was unmanned, the fellow asked me if I knew where room 1814 was. I did and instead of trying to remember the number of hallways to pass before turning, I said, “Sure, just turn left go down the 10 foot eyes lifted messiah and turn right at the downcast 3 footer on the wall to your left, then turn left again a the lord with palms to heaven wood carving and you’re there.”  I probably wouldn’t have paid so much attention if I hadn’t found the sheer number of these billboards so annoying., but as aggravating to me as they were, I wouldn’t and didn’t ask to have them removed, though I did manage to obscure the one next to my missus’ tv with a paisley scarf. She of course had to keep asking the nurses and maintenance staff not to remove the covering. Frankly and thankfully that’s a rare condition for me, I think a better solution to culturally offensive art is to place it in a museum and put it into a proper cultural and historical context. jmo


    1. Dave Hart

      Except that in this case, it is not a matter of disagreement.  Also, Jesus isn’t known to have committed genocide or mass rape.  So statues of him are not on the same plane.  Confused why you thought this experience was insightful in the discussion of removing statues dedicated to those who promoted white supremacy, mass rape, torture, murder and other crimes in a systematic way.

    2. Jeff Boone

      I agree with John Hobbs for most of this.

      Tolerance and self-awareness are both in very short supply today.  So is forgiveness.  Ironically those Christian symbols are representative of the principles of these things.  I don’t think it is just coincidence that the trends toward secularization coincide with more uncontrolled resentment and rage.

      We also need to understand that the removal of these statues is not about racism.  It is about ideological transformation.  Ideological transformation cannot progress unless the history of the existing culture is rewritten.

      The Howard Zinn project has been breathtakingly successful.

  5. Chris Griffith

    Were the people on board of the enola gay were they heroes or did they commit genocide would you build a statue for them or would you tear down a statue if there was one.

    A traitor is all in the eyes of the beholder. And of course whoever  writes history the history books.

    1. Dave Hart

      That might be another question for another day.  It is not on the agenda and is beside the point unless you want to include statues to any WWII Nazi/Fascist axis soldiers and politicians.  One can certainly debate and probe the ethics of the politicians that deemed dropping nuclear weapons on civilian centers was a war crime.  But we as a country are engaged in a white supremacy and white confederacy discussion and your argument doesn’t change the terms of it.

  6. Chris Griffith

    All the soldiers that fought on Guadalcanal did they commit genocide or were they American heroes I guess it all depends huh.
    Black lives matter might want to leave up a few statues for the next generation 2 teardown.


    1. Dave Hart

      There are plenty of other, non-Confederacy statues that could be considered for removal at another time.  For now, every single statue should come down and moving them to a “Garden of Horrors” where they might be displayed in proper context is the focus and should remain the focus of Confederate statues.

  7. Dave Hart

    Only a person who believes in the doctrine of white supremacy can advocate for leaving statues and monuments dedicated to the Confederacy.  The Civil War was about the economic system of slavery and the institution of white supremacy that was a requirement for African slavery to exist.  These statues were erected and are protected to reinforce that fact, and to rewrite history to preserve and protect the idea of white supremacy.  After you’ve watched the video in this link, you can try to argue otherwise.

  8. Ron Glick

    “Were the people on board of the enola gay were they heroes or did they commit genocide would you build a statue for them or would you tear down a statue if there was one.”

    They were soldiers who fought for their country that had been attacked. They were soldiers who fought against an expansionist empire that had murdered millions.

    There is a monument to them at the Air and Space Museum Annex where the Enola Gay is preserved.

    I once had Paul Tibbets’ granddaughter as a student. Great kid. Luckily I was wise enough to present both sides of this argument respectfully and defended Tibbets, who felt a lot of guilt, for what he had been involved in before his granddaughter walked up to me after class and told me her ancestry.

    My father who had been on Layte and Okinawa and was waiting for the invasion of Japan thought Tibbets was a hero. He  told me Tibbets saved the lives of a million men, including his own, because that was the casualty estimate for the invasion of Japan.

    Compare that history to Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford Forrest, slavers and traitors, who chose their own provincial interests and the perpetuation of an economic system based on chattel slavery over country.

    1. Dave Hart

      Deflecting attention to another set of ethical questions doesn’t really affect the issue of what to do about statues of the Confederacy.  This article is about the Confederacy and memorializing the institution of white supremacy and sweeping the crimes (rape, murder, kidnapping, torture) under the rug or outright denying them.  There is no such thing as a historically accurate and educational statue dedicated to the Confederacy, at least not the ones put up by the Sons of the Confederacy or the United Daughters of the Confederacy or the Ku Klux Klan or any other similar organization or private person. It will always be a lie.  It has to be a lie because the truth is so horrible.

  9. Jeff Boone

    The Democratic Party (more properly named the Democrat Party) should change its name as it was the old Party that supported slavery, voted 100% against civil rights for black and perpetuated Jim Crow laws.  It is racist to allow that name to continue… a clear symbol of white supremacy.

    May I suggest the “Symbolism” Party,  the “Globalist Socialist” Party or the “Open Borders Export Jobs” Party.  Or maybe the “Victim’s Group Collective” Party.

    1. Keith Olsen

      Great point Jeff, since those on the left are so intent on erasing all things past with any bad connotations the Democrat Party should be high on the list.  After all, they were the party of slavery and the KKK.


    2. Dave Hart

      And how ironic that the Republican Party of Lincoln, the party of Reconstruction (derailed by the Democrats and the Republicans) is now fighting to preserve symbols of the Confederacy in every locale where they are not grossly outnumbered.

        1. Dave Hart

          Yes, we are talking about history with all its inconvenient warts and nastiness.  Seems that support for the continued presence of statues and monuments to horrendous crime is alive in both political parties and in American culture.  What’s even sadder, is that it takes the murder of Black people to remind us of how deeply ingrained and active is our nation’s criminal past.

        2. Jeff Boone

          The removal of the statues…

          1. Does nothing to solve any real problems.

          2. Is divisive… creates more problems.

          3. Is not about the statues.  Is not about racism.  It is about ideological transformation.

          4. And because of these things is a slippery slope that will come back to bite the people supporting it in the arse.

        3. Dave Hart

          The removal of the statues…

          1.  “Does nothing to solve any real problems” but is a highly symbolic first step.  How much progress toward eliminating white supremacy can be made when people are told while supremacists are worthy, valuable, even reverential?  No statues of Himmler, Hitler or Goering in Germany for good reason.

          2.  “Is divisive…creates more problems” for some people.  Which people?  People who are committed to preserving white supremacy in all aspects of society including employment, housing, and wherever else we need someone to be a notch below to feel a notch above.

          3.   “It’s not about the statues.  Is not about racism.  It is about ideological transformation.”  Wrong on the first and second counts, right on the last.  Statues are symbols that represent sentiments, an interpretation of history a vision of shared values.  See number 1. above.  Getting rid of them or at least repurposing them in a National Garden of Crime would be important to re-frame their intent and change how people regard mass criminality and pernicious institutions like white supremacy. Yes, it’s just possible people would begin to see white supremacy for what it is without the official looking statues that distract and cover up the truth.

          4.  “And because of these things is a slippery slope that will come back to bite the people supporting it in the arse.”  This last one is so weak and lazy there is no need to respond.  It simply doesn’t matter and never will if these statues go away.  No arse’s would be harmed and that is the beauty of removing them.  Please provide at least one example if you really believe this.

        4. Jeff Boone

          Nobody can edit their past.  No country can edit their past.  No culture can edit their past.   But they can have thoughts and speech banned so that they eventually forget about the past and thus repeat the same mistakes of the past.

          Your ideology here is wrong-headed if good-intentioned.  It is that road to hell problem.

          I will never understand the hyper emotive processor of people that seem stuck screaming at symbols that trigger them instead of focusing on the real root cause of problems.   It isn’t a step forward, it is an addiction to emotive placebos that are destructive like a drug addiction is destructive… because it detracts from the work that should otherwise be done to actually make things better.

          And don’t tell me that you do both… because any energy wasted on junk is a tragedy.  Every minute we spend yelling at statues another person in the black urban community is shot and killed by a community member.

          Nobody that matters is today looking at a statue of General Lee and celebrating black racial strife in this country.   That is a media-political construct that intelligent people should recognize for what it really is, and reject it for what it is not… meaningful in ways that would actually help anyone in any material way.

  10. Jeff Boone

    I had an idea and I don’t want to write a piece on it, and I am not sure it fits here… but it somewhat does.  So here goes.

    I think that one thing that is impacting the black community that we have failed to recognize and failed to account for is the legalization of marijuana. Interesting that I cannot find much written on this, but it seems pretty clear.

    We have taken a largely black-run black market industry that is becoming owned by non-blacks and generating cash for them and the government.   And after the government destroyed so much legal industry from its misguided pursuit of globalism, this would be hard to take if I were living in those communities and trying to make it in the illegal drug trade.

    My idea is that we give the national marijuana product production licensing rights to the 90% of American blacks that live here today (not the 10% that are immigrants) as a sort of reparations.  This is similar to allowing indigenous tribes to build and run casinos.   And we require sub-licensing for the existing marijuana businesses… or else they would be purchased by the government at a fair price and established as a public-private partnership where non-profits assist to mentor and train blacks to manage the business with a program for them to earn ownership back from the government over time and performance.

    And in return I would de-fund BLM and stop allowing radicals to tear down statues in rage.

    I would also reform law enforcement and the education system, but that is another topic.


    1. Dave Hart

      Now that is one truly socialistic solution even if based on a questionable depiction of who really owned and profited from illegal weed.  It would require the government to take the legal marijuana trade away from John Boehner (yeah!  Really.  Look it up!) and his white buddies.  I like the sound of that, but if your plan is to use government power to decide who runs what businesses (which they do too much of already) I’d rather just pay for 100% of expenses for Black people to earn a university diploma with no loan baggage.  That’s a better deal for everyone.

      1. Jeff Boone

        I don’t think that is a better deal because there would be nothing owned in the end except a head full of Anti-American dogma.

        This is anti-capitalist like Indian casinos are anti-capitalist.

        But I connect it to the fact that there are many in the urban black community that became quite competent at production, marketing, sales and distribution of drug products… illegally.  I like the idea of connecting that SYMBOLICALLY to a legal enterprise where they would pay taxes and understand why liberals are so damn bothersome in trying to run a profitable enterprise.

        And no political party will survive trying to tax non-blacks for reparations.  This though might work.

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