Publisher’s Corner: When do we stop removing offensive statues and memorials?

Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel
Statue of Christopher Columbus, at the corner of Elmwood Ave and Reservoir Ave, Providence, RI. This statue is on the National Register of Historic Places.

America will always have to atone for its past. It’s really that simple. You can’t get around the fact that a group of wealthy, white Americans including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson imported slaves from Africa and brought them here in chains to be claimed as property by other wealthy white people. Once slavery became such an anathema in the eyes of the world, those people who had formerly been slaves were consigned to a different kind of Jim Crow hell. That treatment is still going on. Republicans in Congress, for example, continue on the path of their southern forbearers (then Democrats) to prevent people of color from voting. When Lyndon Johnson championed the Voting Rights Act in Congress, he famously suggested that the Democrats would lose the south and they have. The same thing goes for those who displaced and murdered Native Americans to rob them of their land and their way of life. When Christopher Columbus came to America, those murders began. My ancestors were probably digging potatoes in Russia or Poland (unclear which.) It really doesn’t matter; we all have to live with the consequences of each of the aforementioned occasions. We are defined as a country by what came before us.

If you were to put up a plaque in honor of Adolph Hitler or any of his sympathizers, I’d be first in line protesting and demanding that the memorial be taken down. People are giving millions of dollars to the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center because they were so insulted by the Trump’s remarks made after the right wing rally in Charlottesville. He equated those who were protesting Nazism and bigotry with those who actually were Nazis and bigots. Germany leads the world in many ways in anti-fascism laws and rules it is against the law to utter Nazi slogans and propaganda. If you are a person of color and have to endure a statue of Robert E. Lee, the general who led the armies pledged to keep your ancestors in shackles, you’d damned well have been on those lines demanding that the statues and memorials to Lee and his contemporaries be removed.

I was born and raised within walking distance of Columbus Circle. I lived just steps off Columbus Avenue. Columbia University is less than a mile from my home on 96th Street. A Native American may well have the same visceral response to those names that people of color have to the pro-slavery forces that fought to keep black people in chains.

So what’s to be done? New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has demanded that the Army change the name of a street in a military facility that honors General Lee. Of course, there will be people of Italian descent who will take offense that there might never be another Columbus Day parade. We know the Washington football organization has been demanding for years, quite correctly, that the name of the National Football League’s Washington Redskins be changed. I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if that now happens post haste as the anti-Trump fervor in the United States gains more and more momentum.

But the most perplexing question is, “Where does it stop?” Many people believe that these statues and memorials should be placed in museums to help explain what they stood for in the context of our country’s history. Then, too, some ugly fights will take place between sub groups. Is the specter of slavery much worse than what happened to Native Americans? There will be those who say, “All or nothing.” It’s a real dilemma.

Some people like Andrew Young, one of the greatest of our civil rights heroes, say this whole fight is diverting our attention away from other important issues like economic inequality, real estate red lining, jobs and so much more. This is a tough one but it needs to be faced.