By Hastings Wyman –
The issue of whether or not to remove monuments and statues that honor the Confederacy or its officials received a huge move to front and center following the demonstrations, riots and violence in Charlottesville. All across the nation – and especially in the South – cities are removing their Confederate monuments or moving them to a less public space. Most of these jurisdictions have large African-American population. In other cities, these actions are very controversial.
Many historians assert that the monuments were built during times when whites were working to impose and/or keep white supremacy, not to honor the Confederacy. Essentially, because most of the monuments were erected after Reconstruction through the 1920s, a period of racial tension throughout the South, they link them to racism. Many were put up at the behest of the daughters of Confederate veterans.
Some historians have questioned the wisdom of tearing down monuments that might provide history lessons. “Willy-nilly removal of the statues is risky business,” Yale historian David Blight told the Boston Globe. Instead, he suggests keeping those on battlefields and removing others from public squares.
A poll by NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist of voters nationwide found that 62% believed the monuments should remain while only 27% favored removing them. Another survey, by Reuters/Ipsos found that 54% of adults favored keeping the monuments in public places, while 27% said they should be removed.
In three of the South’s politically important states – Florida, Georgia and Virginia – the monuments have become a controversial issue. Whether this second fighting of the War Between the States, as school children were taught to call it in much of the South, will still be around in 2018 remains to be seen. But in Virginia, the issue has arisen in the middle of this year’s campaigns for governor.
Geoff Skelley, political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, says that the issue presents a different problem for each of the gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie.
“Given the reaction of Northam and other Democrats, the Democrats are confident in their position,” which is to remove all Confederate monuments. “But the danger for Northam is if the left sort of runs with this, and you see behavior like in Durham (where protesters pulled down a Confederate statue), it puts Northam in a difficult position. A lot can happen from here on out.” A Republican group has already tweeted an accusation that Northam had “betrayed his heritage” by wanting to take down the Confederate monuments. After some criticism, the tweet was removed.
“This is clearly an issue of note for the Republican base,” continues Skelley. On the one hand, Gillespie wants to distance himself – somewhat — from President Trump, who lost the state by five points last November. On the other hand, Gillespie won the GOP primary by an unexpectedly slim margin of 1.25% over Corey Stewart, who campaigned primarily on preventing the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville. Stewart’s vote was a surprise to both insiders and pollsters, and appeared to reflect a major concern over the monuments issue among Republican voters.
A poll of Virginia voters taken after the Charlottesville protests found that 51% favored keeping the monuments, while only 28% favored removing them. Also, 52% consider the monuments part of the South’s heritage, while 25% believe the statues represent racism.
In Florida, where Southerners live in the Northern part of the state and mostly non-Southerners live in the rest of the state, the issue “is getting a lot of attention,” says University of South Florida professor Susan MacManus “The biggest issue is in Tallahassee” where a monument to a Confederate officer sits on the grounds of the old Capitol, which operates a museum. Gov. Rick Scott (R) says it’s up to the legislature to decide whether to remove this statue. “We have done the research,” he said, reported the Tallahassee Democrat. But the museum does not acknowledge ownership. Andrew Gillum, the African-American mayor of Tallahassee and a candidate for governor, has come out strongly for removal of the monuments.
The fate of Confederate monuments has also prompted major discussion in other Sunshine State cities. In Jacksonville, a hearing before the city council
drew a crowd of pro- and anti-monument folks, resulting in vigorous debate. At issue is a monument erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1911. The pro-monument people want a referendum on the issue. In Tampa, officials said they would move a statue in front of the court house if activists could raise the $150,000 it would cost. The money was raised in two days, with special help from the city’s three professional sports teams.
There is also a move to place a monument to those who were slaves. State Rep. Kionne McGhee (D) wants the monument “to recognize the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery.”
But, says MacManus, “People tearing down monuments is not happening.”
As for the political impact in Florida, the South’s second largest state, “It is too early to say,” says MacManus. “The Democrats are strongly for removing the monuments. The Republicans are dancing around the issue carefully.”
“It’s more visible in the governor’s race,” says MacManus, but she does note Sen. Bob Nelson’s (D) quick change on the issue. He initially said that the decision on what to do with the monuments should be left to each community, but the next day, after black lawmakers and activists called him on this, he switched his position to favoring the removal of the monuments. A Florida Democratic consultant told Politico, “This is a dividing-line issue for Democrats and I just don’t get why Nelson messed up like this. Think about this: Nelson is being asked about Confederate monuments and his answer is, basically, states’ rights? It’s nuts.” Said another observer of Florida politics, “He got his hands slapped,”.
In Georgia, there will be an unveiling of a statue to Martin Luther King, Jr. this morning at the state Capitol. King is the first non-elected official to be so honored. But it is not King’s statue that is causing controversy.
University of Georgia political science Professor Charles “Chuck” Bullock says the Confederate memorials are an issue in the Peach State. “The leading Democratic candidate for governor wants to sandblast Stone Mountain,” where statues of Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis were carved by the same sculptor who carved the presidents at Mount Rushmore. State Rep. Stacey Abrams (D), an African-American and a gubernatorial candidate, says Stone Mountain “remains a blight on our state and should be removed.”
Indeed, there is a debate in the Democratic Party in Georgia about the best way to win a majority. “They need 200,000 more votes,” says Bullock; “Abrams wants to maximize the minority voters. The other view is to go after white working class voters.”
At a recent Democratic event, Abram’s supporters almost shouted down Abram’s opponent, the other Stacey, state Rep Stacey Evans (D), who is white, chanting “support black women.” For the next week or so the two sides exchanged social media insult. The scrap “underscored racial tension in the Democratic coalition,” reported the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
As for the GOP, “The Republicans have been very quiet,” says Bullock. However, state Sen. Michael Williams (R), an early Trump supporter, is “leading the charge to save Stone Mountain’s memorial,” says a fundraising appeal, adding that “even our Republican opponents have tiptoed around the issue.” Whether he gets traction with the issue remains to be seen.
Bullock notes that Andy Young, former mayor of Atlanta, former UN Ambassador and major civil rights activist, has a different view of the issue. In an interview with NPR, Young said of the Stone Mountain memorial, “That is a tremendous carving. And I don’t want to see that destroyed. I don’t care who it is.” Young added, “What worries me is that this country will turn to the right so it’ll be taking down Martin Luther King’s statue next when the racist majority takes over.”