Why America is wrestling with Confederate monuments

JUDY WOODRUFF: United States history is dominating the headlines by being at the heart of a debate that has compelled many to take to the streets. How should Americans remember the past and confront the deep wounds of slavery?

Our William Brangham explores how the events of recent weeks are sparking a national conversation.

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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It began — at least according to the organizers — as a protest against plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from downtown Charlottesville, Virginia.

MALE: I think it's a historical monument and it should stay where it's at.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But the events there earlier this month jolted the nation. This week, the nearly century-old monument was covered in a black shroud, and calls for it to be taken down continue.

MALE: I'm not going to stop in my efforts to try and get it removed, but I'm glad the city council recognized that it had to be addressed.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This most recent push to get rid of Confederate symbols can be traced, in part, back to June 2015. That's when avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The next month, a confederate battle flag was removed from the statehouse grounds.

Earlier this year, the city of New Orleans removed all its Confederate monuments.

Democratic Mayor Mitch Landrieu:

MAYOR MITCH LANDRIEU, D-La.:To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But in the weeks since Charlottesville, as even more Confederate statues came down in places like Baltimore, which the city removed, and Durham, North Carolina, toppled by activists, a new question emerged: what are we to do with monuments that's on our honor historical figures who've been accused of wrongdoing?

Among the examples cited recently: statues and commemorations for Christopher Columbus, whose brutality toward native Americans was well documented; Boston's Faneuil hall, named after merchant Peter Faneuil, who had ties to slave trading; and the Philadelphia monument depicting former Mayor Frank Rizzo, who led a police force widely seen as brutal and racist.

It's a debate attracting voices from every corner — including President Trump:

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you all– you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The national conversation still largely focuses on the hundreds of Confederate monuments, most of which were erected decades after the civil war, and others during the civil rights era.

(on camera): Joining me now are three men who've thought long and hard about how we are to wrestle with this history.

Pierre McGraw is founder and president of the Monumental Task Committee, a group dedicated to preserving and restoring monuments. He's in New Orleans.

Peniel Joseph is a historian and professor of public affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. He's the author of several books on civil rights.

And, Fitzhugh Brundage is a history professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with the focus on the south and U.S. history since the civil war.

Gentleman, welcome to the NewsHour to you all.

Peniel Joseph, I'd like to start with you first. I know you are a strong proponent that we ought to take down Confederate monuments across the country. Explain why.

PENIEL JOSEPH, University of Texas: Well, I think because the Confederate symbols are symbols of racial hatred, slavery and white supremacy.

So, I think what some critics do is conflate the wish to remove the monuments with somehow politically correct advocacy of whitewashing or subbing American history. Nothing could be further from the case. Removing Confederate symbols is not the same as trying to remove the Washington Monument or symbols of Thomas Jefferson. Those founders owned slaves but their ideas about democracy and freedom, they were generative ideas that other groups, including people of color, women, LGBTQ have utilized to perfect the Union.

So, when we think about the Confederacy, that's something different. There was a civil war between 1861 and 1865 where over 600,000 people were killed because there was a group that wanted to abandon our founding values of freedom and democracy, and didn't want to be a part of the United States. So, getting rid of those symbols is really honoring the best of our history and not trying to somehow scrub or efface that history.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Pierre McGraw, what do you make of that? You heard what he's saying that these monuments to many people are first and foremost, a celebration of the brutal torturous history of slavery in America. What do you make of that?

PIERRE MCGRAW, Monumental Task Committee: Well, first, thanks for having me on.

I think any time that you're going to try to edit our history, you're asking for trouble. And monuments do mean different things to different people. But it's really unfair to judge historical figures by today's standards.

I think this is all just easy political fodder to go after these monuments. We know now this argument is much larger than that, having seen monuments to Christopher Columbus smashed. Just a few days ago, we've seen rallies in New Orleans that take down Andrew Jackson, an American president who saved New Orleans. So, this is a lot larger than just the easy targets of Confederate soldiers.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Fitzhugh Brundage, I wonder if you could give us a bit of context here. I mean, there is some question as to why they monuments went up, what they are a monument or celebration of. Who put them up and why? Can you tell us a little bit about that?

W. FITZHUGH BRUNDAGE, University of North Carolina: Certainly. I think there's not just the question of who put them up and why but also when. So, some monuments were put up in the first decades after the civil war and I think we could understand those monuments as being simultaneously monuments to the white Confederates who died for the Confederate republic, as well as symbols of grieve and certainly defiance. Those monuments tend to be located in cemeteries and were often put up by small local groups honoring local Confederates who were buried there.

Then, between 1890 and roughly 1930, there was an explosion of Confederate commemoration. And those monuments are bigger ones that we typically think of that are monuments of — monuments to Confederate soldiers often depicted in military garb, on top of a pedestal or a column. And those monuments often include inscriptions which honor not just the Confederate soldiers but the Confederate cause itself.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, Peniel Joseph, I'm curious if you've seen this, with the NEWSHOUR and NPR and Marist recently put out a poll that showed that roughly six in 10 Americans feel that for their historical value, that Confederate ought to stay up. I'm wondering what you would say to 60 percent of the nation who seems to believe that. What would you say to try to convince them of your point of view and what would you like us to do with them?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, I would tell them that these monuments are un-American. I would argue that these are symbols of white supremacy because one of the other things that happened after that period of 1930, that Fitzhugh Brundage spoke of is the 1950s and '60s after the Brown Supreme Court decision in 1954, different states start to put up the Confederate battle flag as white massive resistance against the idea of civil rights.

So, I would say that it's un-American. It's not — we think about our founding documents, Constitution, Declaration of Independence, we said that all people are created equal. Even though the document says all men, we've since expanded and revise that to include people who are gay or straight, Muslim, Christian, atheist, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, we truly are multicultural, multi-racial democracy. And that's why we are the envy of the world.

We are only liberty's surest guardian when we are true to our moral and political values. The Confederacy was not true to those values. Slavery is not true to those values. Racism, sexism, none of those things are true core American values.

So I would say we don't need to honor Robert E. Lee, but we're on sure ground when we honor abolitionists, when we honor the founding fathers and mothers, when we honor people who reflect the values of making America the world's last best hope for freedom and democracy.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Pierre McGraw, what do you make of that? I know that you were strongly against what happened in New Orleans, which was bringing down Robert E. Le and several other Confederate monuments. My understanding is that those are down now, that they will eventually end up in a museum where they will be wrapped in some kind of a context.

What's wrong with that? They haven't been melted down. What's wrong with removing them from these central places in our cities and towns, put them in a museum and saying, here's what they stood for in history but take them out of the center square so to speak?

PIERRE MCGRAW: Well, I think that's an amusing concept. I mean, the Robert E. Lee monument is over 70 feet tall in New Orleans. I don't know where you would put that. But if you have ever been to New Orleans, it's a very special city, a unique city.

And we have monuments to all kinds of events and to people. But — basically and since New Orleans has more historic districts than any city in America, the whole city is in essence a living museum and these monuments were designed for where they were placed. They were put up by New Orleanians. These were not put up by governments.

Mothers held bake sales to raise money. Women want to honor their husbands who didn't return. This is a way for the South to grieve and to show that, you know, they were still in business. They were still a proud people.

The other gentleman mentioned that there weren't any monuments put up for a little while after the war and only in cemeteries. Well, that was the case in New Orleans too because the reconstruction government, it was forbidden to put up any monuments until reconstruction was over. So, that's when they launched into these series of putting up these monuments.

As far as spending a lot of money to take down monuments, moving down, spending a lot of money to put them back up somewhere in public view just does not make any sense. The people who find these objectionable in the public view do now will find them equally as objectionable if they're in a museum context.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Fitzhugh Brundage, I wonder if you could take on this idea, that the practicality of this. I mean, there are enormous amount of these monuments around the country. Is there any way you could imagine that they might be able to stay up and that context could be applied in some way to existing monuments that would make them — to give them context that you would be comfortable with?

W. FITZHUGH BRUNDAGE: Well, I think there's necessarily going to be some kind of triage in this process because as you said, there are so many hundreds of monuments, indeed, more than a thousand probably, maybe as many as 2,000 scattered all over the landscape. As a practical matter, it's a huge undertaking. But I think there are questions as well about, given that these monuments are controversial, they provoke very strong emotions and we do live in a different society, a profoundly different society than the one that created these monuments, to continue to maintain the monuments where they currently exist also entails money.

But I think there are questions as well about, given that these monuments are controversial, they provoke very strong emotions and we do live in a different society, a profoundly different society than the one that created these monuments. To continue to maintain the monuments where they currently exist also entails money and is presumably going to entail more money in the future.

So, I do think, I would be cautious about allowing a sort of dollars and cents argument to decide whether or not it's appropriate to remove the monuments.

With regards to removing them, I certainly think it's entirely within the community's right to move a monument into a new setting and provide it with the kind of historical context that a monument standing 70 feet in the air that middle of a traffic circle in a modern city is never going to have. There's no signage you could put up that is going to interpret that monument so that people driving past it on tour buses are going to gain an understanding of it, at least an adequate understanding.

So I think the question of reinterpretation and how you do it is a very good question to have but I don't think it's one that's going to be resolved by deciding it's cheaper to leave them where they are than it is to move them.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right. Fitzhugh Brundage, Pierre McGraw, Peniel Joseph, thank you all very, very much.

W. FITZHUGH BRUNDAGE: Thank you.

PIERRE MCGRAW: Thank you.

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