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What the future could hold for these symbols of the American past

As the country faces a moment of reckoning about its treatment of Black Americans and other people of color, the display of memorials, monuments and statues is being reexamined. Some of these symbols are being torn down by protesters, and others removed by authorities or relocated. But what is the historical context behind their origin? Jeffrey Brown reports for our Race Matters coverage.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the country continues a hard discussion over racial justice, the presence of memorials to controversial figures is reexamined once again.

    President Trump doubled down today, threatening prison time for vandalizing or destroying statues.

    As part of our Race Matters coverage, we begin with this report from Jeffrey Brown.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He sits on a horse, tall in the saddle, Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, in a pose symbolizing American strength and confidence, but, below him, two men, a Native American and an African, nameless figures in different poses, and, for many, different symbols, of American racism and brutal expansionism.

    Sunday, the American Museum of Natural History in New York announced it would remove the statue from its Central Park entrance, where it's stood since 1940. It's keeping Roosevelt's name elsewhere in the museum to honor his role in conservation.

    The removal brought different responses.

  • Anil Korkut:

    If this makes some people upset, we don't worship statues, so why not tear it down?

  • Joseph Bolanos:

    I think it's terrible. I think that when you start eliminating history and you start eliminating statues, we have to remember how we got here, through the history.

  • Protesters:

    Tear them down!

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The killing of George Floyd and its aftermath have brought demands for racial justice and for a new reckoning with American history.

    Last night, protesters in Washington's Lafayette Square tried to pull down a statue of President Andrew Jackson, before police moved them back. The protests in recent weeks first centered on Confederate monuments.

    The giant statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, has been the site of massive demonstrations. In Washington, D.C., on Friday night, demonstrators pulled down a memorial of Confederate General Albert Pike.

    The same night, protesters in Raleigh, North Carolina, toppled a Confederate statue. As historians and analysts have noted, many of these statues were built well after the Civil War, and with a purpose well beyond remembering and celebrating the past.

    Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center:

  • Lecia Brooks:

    The first and real push to erect these monuments were in the early 1900s. And this was also at the time right after Emancipation, during the Reconstruction era, and at the beginning of the establishment of Jim Crow laws.

    So, these monuments went up specifically to assert white supremacy and to intimidate African Americans.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Their impact is felt by many to this day, including John Jones of California.

  • John Jones:

    For me, a lot of these monuments represent times that members of my family and my culture and my race have suffered.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But the passions and demands for pulling down monuments have moved beyond those of Civil War figures.

    Statues of Christopher Columbus have been defaced or brought down by protesters, who see not the great discoverer of the Americas, but a colonizer and destroyer of the indigenous population.

    In Albuquerque, New Mexico, street battles broke out over a statue of Juan de Onate, a 16th century colonial governor known for his cruel treatment of Native Americans. The statue was finally removed.

    And the legacy of the nation's founding fathers, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who both owned slaves, continues to be fought over. Again, statues have been toppled.

    Heritage sites have grappled with these issues in a variety of ways. Two years ago, for example, Jefferson's Monticello home added an exhibition dedicated to the life of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who had a decades-long relationship with Jefferson. Historian Niya Bates:

  • Niya Bates:

    We, as Americans, don't address some of the more complex issues of slavery, of sex, of power, of ownership. And that is what is really interesting about Sally Hemings and her story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Other countries have gone further than the U.S. in acknowledging and attempting to reconcile legacies of racial oppression.

    In 2015, protests at the University of Cape Town in South Africa prompted the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a diamond trader and colonial leader. But in the capital, Pretoria, now called Tshwane, then-Mayor Solly Msimanga told me in 2017 he wanted to keep statues of older figures, while adding heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle.

  • Solly Msimanga:

    I am against taking down any kind of statue. I'm all for having all statues, and using them to tell a part of history. I am not here because a certain part of history didn't exist. I'm here because that history happened.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In recent days, we heard from some in this country how they feel about the monuments.

    Michelle Sewell of Maryland:

  • Michelle Sewell:

    We're going to take down these monuments. The monuments that are too big to take down, we're going to give them context or put them museums, so we know where we were as the United States of America, because you keep saying that as if it means something. So, let it mean something.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Xander Matik and Dillon Marks are supporters of President Trump. They spoke outside his rally in Arizona today.

  • Xander Matik:

    I mean, we can't erase our history, even good or bad. And I think that them tearing down the statues of different figures from history, I think that's totally wrong.

  • Dillon Marks:

    We had a Civil War in the country, and there is, of course, a racial divide. But I think having these statues up leaves a reminder not to go back to these events.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Monuments of the past, mirrors of our embattled present.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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