The move to purge America’s landscape of historical monuments and names has gained momentum with the ongoing demonstrations and protests over the killing of black people by police officers. Across the country, statues of historical figures including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have been toppled and defaced. There is growing impetus to remove all things Confederate from public view and rename military bases, among other changes being pushed in this time of racial polarization.
In Georgia, there are intensifying efforts to remove numerous Confederate statues from the state Capitol grounds. Putting the matter in stark terms, descendants of former Gov. John B. Gordon called on Gov. Brian Kemp to remove the statue of Gordon, who was a general in the Confederate army before serving as governor and was leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. In a letter to Kemp, more than 40 of Gordon’s descendants declared the primary purpose of the statue “was to celebrate and mythologize the white supremacists of the Confederacy.” The statue’s continuing presence on public property “serves to negate and undermine the past and ongoing struggle of Georgians to overcome and reverse the legacy of slavery and oppression of black Americans,” the Gordon relatives said.
This came about as a Confederate monument was quietly lifted from its base in front of the DeKalb County courthouse where the obelisk had stood since it was erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1908. A county judge ordered the removal after declaring the monument was a public nuisance because it attracted vandalism and protests. In removing the obelisk, DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond, an African American who was elected Georgia labor commissioner for three four-year terms, called on people “not to overlook the fact that if we are to continue to progress, it must be on bridges of cooperation. We must open the lines of communication with those who may disagree with us, and we must rededicate ourselves to working together to fulfill the commitment.” His approach is a model for dealing with these volatile issues.
In Cobb County, a move began to rename Wheeler High School and Walton High School. Wheeler was named for Gen. Joseph Wheeler, a Confederate cavalry general during the Civil War and earlier a U.S. Army general during the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars. Walton High was named for George Walton, one of the Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence. A petition by a group of parents, students, alumni and others said Wheeler High’s name “celebrates, memorializes, and honors a Confederate general.” Of George Walton, the group says he was “a white supremacist, belonged to a slave owning family, and spent his political career championing white supremacy in Georgia by stripping Native Americans time and time again of their land.”
The petition says: “The current display of Confederate and Segregationist names and themes on government buildings only serves to fuel legitimacy among 21st Century White Supremacists. The values of the school’s namesake do not reflect the values of its students, faculty, or community.” Although the petitions to rename the schools garnered thousands of signatures online, Cobb school board Vice Chairman David Banks said he suspected the renaming drive would disappear within 30 to 60 days. Banks dismissed the idea that the name change requests would come before the school board or get support if they did. “All these emails we’re getting about racism and changing the names of the schools, is 100% Democrats.” Yet dismissing the name-changing movement as political does not deal with the issues being raised here and across the country.
Renaming military bases is part of the broader effort to purge all things Confederate from the landscape. The Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired by Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, approved by voice vote with only a few dissents a proposal to strip Confederate names from military bases and other Defense Department facilities within three years. Both the secretary of the Army and the secretary of Defense have said they were open to a bipartisan discussion of the issue. But the proposal won’t get past President Donald Trump, who made clear that his administration would not even consider renaming “our Legendary Military Bases, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia.” Trump said: “These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom…Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!”
The issues involved in removing monuments and statues honoring national historical figures across the country as well as Confederate monuments and statues in the South, renaming military bases, schools or other public places are so loaded with history and intense racial implications that finding a way through it all will not be easy. Changes will come. How extensive the changes may be is not clear and we only hope that good will by all concerned will prevail over violence and anarchy.