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Monuments, statues and a national reckoning on racial injustice

The debate over physical symbols of the Confederacy has evolved into a broader one about U.S. history. Judy Woodruff talks to Peniel Joseph, professor at the University of Texas at Austin, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Arielle Hudson, one of six students who petitioned the University of Mississippi to relocate a campus Confederate statue.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As Jeff reported, the debate and activism in many communities right now goes well beyond the tributes to the Confederacy.

    Let's pick up the discussion with three people who have given this a lot of thought.

    Peniel Joseph is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, examining issues of race, society and American politics. W. Fitzhugh Brundage is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. And Arielle Hudson was one of six students who petitioned the University of Mississippi to relocate a Confederate statue on campus.

    And we welcome all of you to the "NewsHour." Thank you so much for joining us.

    Arielle Hudson, to you first.

    Why was it so important to you and the others to get this statue, this monument down?

  • Arielle Hudson:

    It was important because of the rich racial history that is at the University of Mississippi.

    And I think because of its close ties to the Confederacy specifically, during that time, most of its enrolled students actually fought in the war on the Confederate side. So, the University of Mississippi's history is not new in terms of the white supremacy and the oppression that it has played now.

    And so once it came to — there are a lot of things that actually unfolded as us deciding that we wanted to write a resolution to get the statue relocated. But I think the main issue came when students actually started to become more vocal about these symbols that we were seeing on our campus and what that meant to African-American students and how that could potentially affect African-American enrollment and the retention of African-American students.

    And we knew that those symbols had to come down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fitzhugh Brundage, there does seem to be now more public support for removing some of these monuments, these statues that are so offensive to many Americans.

    Are we in the middle of some kind of shift as a result of the focus right now on racial justice, do you think?

  • W. Fitzhugh Brundage:


    I think the shift began in 2015 after the massacre in Charleston. And it's been accelerating, but it has certainly accelerated with an intensity and speed I wouldn't have anticipated.

    And I think the real sign of that is the efforts to transform Monument Avenue in Richmond, which is arguably the most sacred Confederate space in the nation. The fact that monuments are being removed or there are plans to remove monuments on that avenue tells you how far and how quickly we have proved in the last couple years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Peniel Joseph, how do you see that? I mean, there are public opinion polls showing an increase in sentiment for removing these symbols of the Confederacy.

    How do you see change in the thinking on the part of many Americans?

  • Peniel Joseph:

    Well, yes, Judy, I think we have a generational opportunity to transform American democracy, and people are really acting and taking proactive steps.

    These monuments are part of that. NASCAR and the Confederate Flag is a part of it, what the NFL has done and said that Black Lives Matter. But these symbols of white supremacy, I think more and more people realize that those symbols actually are connected to substance.

    So, when you have a society that glorifies white supremacy and anti-Black racism, and these memorials dedicated to people who tried to preserve that and tried to portray the Union, I think people are coming around to the fact they don't want to live in that society.

    So, in a way, getting rid of all of these monuments brings us closer to the beloved community that Martin Luther King talked of that was free of racial injustice and economic injustice and free of violence against any of our citizens.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to you, Arielle Hudson.

    The focus is widening now beyond the Confederacy. We saw the statue of Teddy Roosevelt, President Roosevelt, coming down in New York with a — there was a statue next to him of a Black man, an African man, symbolizing the continent of Africa. That's coming down.

    Last night in Washington, protesters tried to take down a statue of Andrew Jackson.

    How do you think about what should be standing and what should come down? How do you think about drawing that line?

  • Arielle Hudson:

    I think that they should come down.

    I think it was only a matter of time before those monuments that are dedicated to our founding fathers also came into the conversation of what monuments will stand, what — how their legacies will continue to be recognized, because the fact is that the very foundation of America was founded on slavery and the oppression of people who were not of European descent.

    I think that this is a conversation that's long overdue for our nation. And I'm glad that we're finally addressing monuments and statues that are not just Confederate monuments, that they are the monuments and statues and the legacies of people who embraced, even as president, white — the ideal of white supremacy and the oppression of Black labor and Black people and Indigenous people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Fitzhugh Brundage, pick up on that, because the conversation does go back to the founders of this country, not just Andrew Jackson, but George Washington, Thomas Jefferson.

    How are Americans, how should Americans be thinking about it? How do you think about it?

  • W. Fitzhugh Brundage:

    I think it's a very good question. And I agree it's a long overdue conversation for us to have.

    I think there are — I think we're going to have to probably engage in a conversation that I might call triage. And we will have to decide some basis upon which to decide what to leave intact and what to take down.

    I think, for example, a monument to Teddy Roosevelt that clearly represented a hierarchy of civilization, with white people at the top and "primitive peoples" — in air quotes — beneath, that is a very problematic statue.

    There are other statues to Teddy Roosevelt, for example, that we may choose to leave up. There are certain figures, like Andrew Jackson, that I think are going to be very vexing for us to decide how to commemorate Andrew Jackson. There are others, I think it will be probably a long time before we get in a conversation about whether or not we want to rename the state of Washington after someone else.

    So, I agree that we need these conversations, and I think the conversations are going to have to come up with a way to deal with the complexities of the past, recognizing who it is we want to honor and who it is who we don't want to honor anymore.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want you to pick up on that, Peniel Joseph, because we're raising some very hard questions here.

    How do we honor or do we continue to honor the very founders, the founders of this country, the people who came here originally from Europe to settle this country, and yet pushed out Native Americans? A lot of questions being raised about them, about Christopher Columbus. How far back should this go?

  • Peniel Joseph:

    Well, I think the positive here is the conversation and really forcing all of us to squarely confront the history.

    So, I think the history of American democracy is filled with both triumphs and tragedies. But when we think about this ideal of American exceptionalism, we often evade the tragedies, and we just focus on the triumphs.

    So, I think that you can talk about American democracy and talk about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and slavery and racial slavery, and also say that, well, people like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman took those words and expanded them and turned them into deeds and created the most expansive, thrilling democratic experiment in American history.

    So, even though we have flawed origins, we can say that those origins provided a template to build that beloved community and for this great opportunity that we have to transform American democracy and make it a democracy as good as its citizens.

    So I think having that conversation is very, very important. And if we can embrace that history in its fulsomeness, in its totality, in its complexity, there are going to be some people who we now know more deeply about and intensely about, where we say, look, those statues can remain because they provided a context for others to build upon these ideals and the make them a reality.

    I think the low-hanging fruit is the Confederacy. The Confederacy should all be relegated to museums, because they tried to betray American democracy. The Confederate generals are war criminals, and they have nothing to do with the ideals that the founding fathers had articulated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Arielle Hudson, who should be making these decisions?

    Clearly, what happened on the campus of Ole Miss was — it was led by students. It was a locally made decision. But are these conversations that should be made in Washington, D.C.? Are they — should they be made in local communities? How should we think about it, because there may be some communities that would have a different view of, say, a Christopher Columbus or a Teddy Roosevelt than other communities?

  • Arielle Hudson:

    I think that the conversation to start at the ground level within our communities. Our elected officials are elected to represent us, to be our voice in Washington, and even at the local and state level.

    So I think that having those community — having those conversations first within our community is the stepping-stone to creating that larger conversation within our actual political sector.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fitzhugh Brundage, as we go forward, should there be some sort of structure to all this, or is this just something that's going to evolve?

  • W. Fitzhugh Brundage:

    I think we should expect this conversation to go on for a long time.

    The one thing that I think national political leaders should do is that they should encourage this conversation. Instead of denouncing this conversation or the controversy about monuments, they should recognize it for what it is. It's a conversation about who we want to honor in our past.

    And it's entirely appropriate for us to have this conversation, especially at this moment in time. So, if national leaders would simply support that process, they don't need to be actively involved in it, just endorse the process, and let the people get on with it. Communities will decide what should stand in their midst.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Peniel Joseph, just finally, maybe that's a reference to President Trump, among others. He's basically said that people should be punished, arrested if they try to bring down these statues.

    Who should be doing the bringing down, and who should be deciding what comes down and what stays up?

  • Peniel Joseph:

    Well, I think local people should be deciding.

    But I think with the mass demonstrations we have seen, we have seen the passions that these monuments have elicited. And I think it's really about even more than just who we honor. I think these monuments are deeply connected to racial slavery and the wealth that has been produced by Black labor historically, and how that wealth continues to remain unpaid and unaccounted for.

    So, these monuments really remind us of this deep investigation into the American past that we have to do that's all around us that, a lot of times, we ignore. These monuments were built at a time period where America was at a different crossroads, still trying to wrestle with these ideas of Black citizenship and Black dignity.

    And now we're at another crossroads in 2020, still wrestling with the same issues, but it seems like we have momentum to finally achieve our country in a way that's free of racial injustice, that's free of that past history of brutality, and that embraces the complexity of who we are.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it is a conversation that is being had across this country right now.

    And we want to thank all three of you, Peniel Joseph, Fitzhugh Brundage, Arielle Hudson. Thank you so much for joining us.

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