Washington Despatch | International

The statues that haunt America

History is rarely a topic of consensus even in homogeneous societies. The white supremacist terrorism last week in Charlottesville, Virginia, which led to the death of a civil rights activist, brought to global attention a deeply divisive debate that has inflamed passions across the U.S. The quiet town has been making national headlines ever since its council decided to remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a city park last year. President Donald Trump has waded into the controversy in a manner that encourages nationalist groups.

In the Maryland city of Baltimore, the council unanimously decided on August 14 to remove and destroy statues recognising Confederate leaders, and the decision was implemented overnight. Over the last weekend in Gainesville, Florida, and in Durham, North Carolina, such statues were removed. In Durham, protesters used a rope to pull down a Confederate monument dedicated in 1924. In Birmingham, Alabama, a wooden structure is used to cover up a Confederate monument. In all, the 11 former Confederate States that fought in the Civil War for secession from the union and for the preservation of slavery, monuments to historical figures, seen by many as ruthless oppressors and by some as heroes, have aggravated the divisions in society. Several States have passed laws that forbid local governments from removing Confederate symbols.

Still the call for removing confederate symbols got louder in recent years. At least 60 symbols of the Confederacy have been removed or renamed since 2015. Most of these monuments were erected in the early 20th century, when segregation laws institutionalised racial inequality and oppression of African American people.

Several American universities that received support from slave-owners and white supremacists have also been grappling with the question of what to do with that legacy. In February, the Yale University changed the name of Calhoun College, named after alumnus John C. Calhoun, an ardent defender of slavery. The Brown family, as in the Brown University, was linked to slave trade. The demands for removing such monuments and renaming such places and institutions have gotten louder with the Black Lives Matter movement. However, there are deep complexities associated with the debate.

“George Washington was a slave-owner... Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? Are we going to take down the statue?” Mr. Trump asked in a combative exchange with reporters last week. “You are changing history, you’re changing culture.”

‘Protect the heritage’

Some have responded to Mr. Trump’s attempt to draw the country’s slave-owing founding fathers into the debate by making two points. First, the monuments in question were built in the 20th century with the explicit purpose of asserting racial supremacy of the white people. Second, unlike the founding fathers, Confederate generals fought for the disintegration of the country.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that advocates the preservation of these monuments, says it only wants to protect the heritage and commemorate the valour of ancestors. According to a spokesperson this week, the involvement of hate groups and neo-Nazis has undermined their cause. Wes Bellamy, Charlottesville’s African-American Vice-Mayor, says that heritage is deeply hurtful and insulting for the African-Americans. Some have argued for a middle path — to contextualise the monuments by providing more information and erecting other monuments to African-American icons in the same vicinity.

Varghese K. George works for The Hindu and is based in Washington

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 9:45:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/the-statues-that-haunt-america/article19524962.ece

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