When white supremacists emerged from the shadows for a public display of their beliefs in Charlottesville, Va. on Aug. 12 under the guise of protecting the statue of a Confederate hero, General Robert E. Lee, they could not have imagined how other Americans would respond.
But after the protest suddenly became violent with one person killed and 19 others wounded, Americans have found themselves in a tug-of-war over the future of these statues — viewed by some as symbols of hate and reminders of pain and by others as markers of historic proportion.
Ironically, while Southerners, following their defeat in the Civil War, chose to erect monuments honoring leading proponents of the Confederacy, Lee himself advised against it.
“I think it wiser . . . not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered,” Lee wrote in 1869 while weighing-in on proposals for memorials at Gettysburg.
Even progeny of Lee (his great-great grandson and great-great-great granddaughter), according to author Eric Foner whose book “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” won a Pulitzer Prize for history, have said in a written statement that “he [Lee] never would have tolerated the hateful words and violent actions of white supremacists, the KKK or New-Nazis.”
“If you’re going to keep Robert E. Lee, let’s have a statue of Nat Turner, the slave rebel, or maybe of John Langston, the first Black congressman from Virginia in the 1880s,” Foner writes. “But they don’t put up statues of those guys because the statues are meant to symbolize white supremacy and putting up a statue of a Black doesn’t fit.”
Meanwhile, Democrats have attempted to use President Donald Trump’s largely unpopular response to the violence in Charlottesville to their advantage — issuing messages, supporting legislative actions and seeking public support as they work toward gaining back seats in the Senate, House and other seats from the governor to school boards in the critical 2018 midterm elections.
New Jersey Senator Cory A. Booker has turned his attention on legislation that would remove Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol. And some Democrats in the House have demanded a formal censure of the president who said soon after the disturbance in Charlottesville that there were “some fine people on both sides.”
One Black Republican strategist, Joseph Pinion III, who lives in New York and serves as the chair of the Conservative Color coalition, said he wants to see Confederate symbols removed as well as Trump’s election commission being disbanded. He also issued Democrats a warning.
“They [Democrats] need to look at why they lost the 2016 presidential election and not get caught up in fighting ‘cosmetic’ racism and symbols,” he said during a recent appearance on CNN.
Trump disagrees with taking down statues or renaming highways and roadways.
“We can’t change history but we can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next? Washington? Jefferson? So foolish!” he said in an Aug. 17th tweet and then again during a recent press conference at Trump Tower in New York City.
Reportedly, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus [CBC], like Booker, have reinitiated requests to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol. But no one from the CBC, according to a spokesperson for the organization, has come forward with resolutions or letters addressing the removal of the divisive symbols.
However, CBC leaders have been vocal.
“We will never solve America’s race problem if we continue to honor traitors who fought against the U.S. in order to keep African Americans in chains. By the way, thank God, they lost,” CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) told ABC News.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the only African-American member of the Mississippi delegation, has demanded that his state’s flag not be displayed because of its inclusion of the Confederate battle flag.
Across the U.S., statues have been removed from their former places of prominence but where they’ll end up continues to be debated. Suggestions range from museums and private facilities to trash heaps and landfills.
Cities where efforts to remove statues have been successful include: Durham, N.C., Gainesville, Daytona Beach and St. Petersburg, Fla., San Diego, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, N.Y., Madison, Wis., and Annapolis and Baltimore, Md.
Only states have the power to replace statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection located in the Capitol.
Two New York Democrats, Reps. Yvette Clarke and Hakeem Jeffries, gave their support last month to several non-CBC lawmakers in efforts to have the U.S. Army rename streets at Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton that honored two Confederate generals. The Army, however, rejected their request.
Meanwhile, Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) had better luck in the successful removal of a Confederate monument from his St. Louis district in Forest Park earlier this summer.
Finally, in a statement, the former CBC chairman expressed sympathy for the pain people endure when confronted by terror, referring to the actions taken by protestors in Durham, N.C. who recently pulled down a Confederate statue without proper authorization.
“I don’t condone the destruction of government property but I understand the hurt and pain the continued existence of confederate monuments cause to many in our communities, whether it is on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, state capitals, or any other locations,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D.N.C.).