Gutzon Borglum came to South Dakota to take on the monumental task of carving Mount Rushmore not long after he left the project he had begun at Stone Mountain in Georgia, a much larger monument of General Robert E. Lee, General Stonewall Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. I have only seen pictures of the mountain, but I know it is currently only one of many Confederate symbols that have become the focus of much discussion and controversy.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered four confederate statues removed in the night for the “safety and security of our people.” This followed the riot in Charlottesville, Virg., where three people died and many were injured over the issue of the removal of a statue there. New Orleans removed four statues, and Dallas, Memphis, San Antonio, Lexington, Ken. and other cities likewise are considering what they will do with symbols of the Confederacy in their areas.
I am still conflicted on the issue. These statues and monuments are symbols of a sorrowful time in our nation’s history, when blacks were treated as property and often worked against their will, when families were divided over the issue of slavery and states’ rights, and our country was ripped apart by war, death and hatred for one another. What kind of feelings does it evoke in a black person today when they stare at monuments that seemingly glorify that era?
On the other hand, is it really fair to wipe our history clean? The statues represent people who fought hard and believed strongly that individual states should have the right to make decisions for their own people, particularly regarding slavery. Though some were good to their slaves, many were not, and the whole notion that a person could become property is extremely offensive to our sensibilities today. But, that being said, couldn’t there be interpretation of that era surrounding the statues that would give understanding to the past and resolve to think differently in the future?
Someone has reminded me of the book 1984, which had as part of the story the Ministry of Truth, an agency tasked with destroying historical documents that would remind citizens of the ways things had been. In their place would be “truth” written to reflect the propaganda of the government, kind of a scary proposition by my way of thinking. We certainly don’t want to erase the past, gruesome as it may be, but rather there is potential to learn from it. Recently, I heard a young man talk about touring Auschwitz, the World War II Nazi-controlled concentration camp and his somber reaction to it. Just seeing it causes people to remember anew and resolve, “Never again.”
I thought former President Jimmy Carter made a good point. He thought it appropriate to remove the Confederate Flag from places in his state, but he made a distinction between that as a battle flag, and the statues, which were tributes to confederate figures. He noted that his great grandfather, who he called an “enlightened segregationist,” had fought with the Confederacy at Gettysburg. Though his grandfather believed in segregation, he treated well the black employees and customers at the family farm.
Carter’s U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, opposes the removal of the Confederate era statues. He believes we should “focus on substance, not symbols.”
Should Stone Mountain be blasted away, because those figures are connected to the fight for slavery and states’ rights? That will be for Georgia to decide. Should Thomas Jefferson be chiseled out of Mount Rushmore because he owned slaves? I think not. We can know that about him, understand the time in which he lived and appreciate what he did in the founding of our country. Should Robert Lee be removed from broadcasting for ESPN recently simply because of his name?
Now that is carrying the issue too far.