Tensions are on the rise as protesters tried to take down the Andrew Jackson statue in Lafayette Square near the White House in Washington, D.C.
The statue of aÂ young man, gun at his side, has sat outside the Harrison County Courthouse in Marshall, Texas, since 1905. ItsÂ mainÂ inscription reads “Confederate.”
That’s enough to warrant its removal, says Demetria McFarland, a fifth grade teacher who has started a petition to that end.
“That statue, in a public place, doesn’t represent my values as a Black woman, it represents slavery and the torture my ancestors went through,” says McFarland, founder of Marshall Against Violence. “Other cities are taking down these symbols of racial divide, so why not also here in our little east Texas town?”
Many are asking the same question.
History is on review as the 21st century’s latestÂ civil rights movementÂ catches fire, smoldering embers fanned by the death in police hands of George Floyd on Memorial Day.Â From California to Washington, D.C., grassroots efforts such as McFarland’sÂ are urging citizens and lawmakers to reject historical figures whose backstories reveal views or deeds that insult millions ofÂ Americans.
In past weeks, Mississippi passed a bill to create a new state flag without the Confederate battle emblem. In New Jersey, Princeton University took former President Woodrow Wilsonâ€™s name off a college, citing his racist views. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, officials took down a statue of Diego de Vargas, a Spanish conquistador who brutalized Native Americans.
Countless other petitions and protests are calling for similar statue removals and name changes in an effort to at least spark a Â dialogue about whoÂ deserves honoring. In many cases, such symbols were erectedÂ decades after the Civil War by the Daughters of the Confederacy, a civic group aimed at upholding the South’s racial segregation.
Over the Fourth of July weekend, President Donald Trump fanned the flames of theÂ issue during an appearance at MountÂ Rushmore, where he condemned efforts to reevaluate the appropriateness of historical tributes and charged that children are being taught to â€œbelieve the men and women who built (this country) were not heroes but villains.â€ Activists and Native leaders have called for the removal of the South Dakota monument.Â
“There’s no question that all movements require conversation and dialogue to truly move ahead,” says Melina Abdullah, a founding member of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and a professor of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. “But what doesn’t require conversation is knowing things shouldn’t be named after people who dehumanized other people.”
It is hard to know how far this latestÂ drive to rename landmarks will get. Almost every historical figure could be worthy of deeper review.
Consider Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian seafarer who gave his name to America. Some historians contend Vespucci exaggerated his claims, partnered in his enterprise with a man made rich from the slave trade,Â and stole the limelight from his contemporary, Christopher Columbus â€“ whose own statues have been targeted because of his murderous treatmentÂ of Indigenous people.
Renaming is a powerful way to announce that change has arrived. And for many people of color, the time has come to stop ignoring symbols of oppression, says Elena Ortiz, chair of the Santa Fe Freedom Council of The Red Nation, a New Mexico-based activist group focused on the liberation of indigenous peoples.
“The great reckoning is here,” says Ortiz, whose group successfully pushed to remove statues of Juan de OÃ±ate, a 16th century Spanish conquistador who raped Pueblo women and stole from enslaved tribal communities. “It’s time to fan the flames.”
Ortiz says it is not appropriate to honor figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and explorer Kit Carson. “Jefferson was a slave holder, Jackson believed the only good Indian is a dead IndianÂ and Carson was an Indian murderer,” she says. “When people ask do we need to rename Carson City, Nevada, the answer is yes.”
In Denver, Â school board member Tay Anderson has joined other activists to push for the renaming of schools named after figures such as Jefferson and George Washington, “who may have been founding fathers but they didn’t stand up to racism and slavery, so they were complicit.”
Anderson also has been part of an effort to change the name of a neighborhood, Stapleton, named afterÂ former mayorÂ andÂ Ku Klux Klan member Benjamin Stapleton, whose name once also adorned the city’s airport.
“We are better than this,” Anderson says.
In St. Louis, Moji Sidiqi, executive director of the Regional Muslim Action Network, has joined forces with an Israeli restaurant owner to start a petition to not only remove a statue of Â Louis IX of France, the city’s namesake, but also to rename the city itself.
“History tells us King Louis was a Christian zealot who was an IslamophobeÂ and anti-Semite” in 13th century France, says Sidiqi. “We don’t want to see the statue broken or trashed, but it doesn’t need to be in a public place where Muslims and Jews and African Americans goÂ to make memories with their families.”
For Sidiqi, the current push to rename thingsÂ isn’t about erasing history but rather choosing what is worthy of celebration.
“Are we supposed to keep pretending our beautiful nation doesn’t have symbols of anti-inclusion and slavery everywhere?” she says. “We’re trying to take away symbols of hate and replace them with symbols of love and community.”
The movement also includes a growing callÂ to rename mountains, parks and other destinations, says Jennifer Runyon, a research staffer at the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in Washington, D.C., which meets monthly to review petitions requesting such changes.
â€œWeâ€™ve gotten a half a dozen proposals related to racial issues lately, requests to change names that may have â€˜squawâ€™ or â€˜negroâ€™ or â€˜digger,â€™ which is offensive to some Native Americans,â€ says Runyon. â€œWe are a reactive body; we donâ€™t go looking for an issue. But if people bring one to us, weâ€™ll review it all and see what people locally say. You just have to have a good name ready to replace it.â€
One example of such change, years in the making, is in California. Instead of Jeff Davis Peak near Lake Tahoe being a tribute to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, it will be called Da-ek Dow Go-et Mountain, Washoe for â€œsaddle between two mountains.â€
“We are open to all petitions,” Runyon says. “All we ask is that you have a good and relevant name ready that speaks to what people in the community care about.”
Debate overÂ who and how to honor
BLM leader Abdullah suggests that perhaps instead of more statues to Abraham Lincoln, who helped officially emancipate slaves, why not celebrate “people like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, Black people who worked hard to free themselves and others?”
Activist Ortiz says why not move away from naming things after people, and instead focus on nature. “We need to step away from the worship of human beings, and in so doing accept that we’re not the center of the universe,” she says.Â
Some, however,Â worry that by focusing intently on the removal of physical objects or name changes, true societal shifts may remain elusive.Â
“We strongly support the removal of statues that celebrate histories of genocide and aggression against Native people, but we have to ensure that this doesn’t gloss over the real history of this continent,” says Michael Roberts, president of the First Nations Development Institute, a Longmont,Â Colorado, organization focused on the economic empowerment of Native Americans.
“These activities are only a first step toward true healing, justice and reconciliation between Native people and the larger society,” he says.
Historian Douglas Brinkley says in the past, presidents have made efforts to “expand the national narrative” on matters of race and equality, citing President Barack Obama’s executive orders on New York City’sÂ Stonewall National Monument, which celebrates the fight for LGBTQ rights, and the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio, spotlightingÂ African Americans who served in the U.S. military.
“That was the right thing to do then, and the right thing to do now is de-Confederatize America,” says Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University in Houston. “People aren’t in the mood for compromising.”
Efforts to remove statues or rename places have drawn emotional reactions as some balk at what they see as the erasure of history.
A Catholic priest in San Francisco recently held a public exorcism on the site in Golden Gate Park where protesters had torn down a statue of Father Junipero Serra, who founded many California missions. Serra was known to force Native Americans to convert and punish them if they rebelled.
â€œEvil has made itself present here,â€ Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said in a video of the event.
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In Orange County, south of Los Angeles, Democrats are pushing to rename John Wayne Airport because of racist statements made by the actor in a 1971 magazine interview. Wayne was quoted in Playboy as saying, â€œI believe in white supremacy.â€
A Los Angeles Times editorial supporting the name change argues that it will help the county â€” a conservative stronghold in a largely Democratic state â€” confront its racist past. Wayneâ€™s son, Ethan Wayne, 58, issued a statement strongly denying his father was a racist.
And in St. Louis, the local Roman Catholic Archdiocese issued a statement opposing efforts to change the name of the city. In siding with counterprotesters who do not want the Louis IXÂ statue removed or city renamed, the Archdiocese highlightedÂ the king’sÂ charity towardÂ the poor, adding that â€œwe should not seek to erase history, but recognize and learn from it, while working to create new opportunities for our brothers and sisters.”
Renaming doesn’t solve the problem
Scholars say the claim that taking away a statue or renaming a street erases history is questionable.Â Â
â€œWe make a mistake saying memorials are about history,â€ says philosopher Susan Neiman, director of the Einstein Forum in Berlin, which promotes the cross-cultural exchange of ideas. â€œWe donâ€™t memorialize all our history, we pick and choose to remember men and women who live by the values we share.â€
Neiman said the debates over which statues, streets and schools should be renamed should remain local, allowing community members to decide what gets scrapped, what finds its way to a museum with contextÂ and what perhaps gets turned into an art project that changes the meaning of the offending symbol.
“It’s not about history,” she says. “It’s about values.”
That was the approach South African leaders took in trying to reconcile that country’s racist past. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established by President Nelson Mandela in 1996, aimed to help Black and white South Africans come to grips with the countryâ€™s racist apartheid past while speeding up a transition to democracy.
While that process did not involve much statue and location renaming beyond the removal of tributes to Hendrik Vorwoerd, the architect of apartheid, it did highlight the impact of having government officials be part of the reckoning, says Ronald Slye, a law professor at Seattle University who was an adviser to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
â€œOne of the lessons to be taken from the TRC is in order for real change to come about, the push for change needs to be part of a broader process in society and there needs to be clear political support for it,â€ Slye says.
Slye says the sheer size of the U.S. and its divided political makeup meanÂ it is more likely that local movements aimed at renaming landmarks will precedeÂ changes at a national level. But the point isnâ€™t just to change a name, he says.
â€œIn the end, itâ€™s easy to change a name of a street or take down some monuments and say, â€˜Now weâ€™re fine,â€™â€ he says. â€œBut itâ€™s not the street thatâ€™s the problem; itâ€™s broader.”
Robbie Powelson is fine with startingÂ with a street. Growing up in Marin County, California, Powelson didnâ€™t give much thought to the name of an English explorer whose name adorns a local street, school and statue.Â
But inspired by the Black Lives Matter social justice movement and its efforts to remove symbols of the Confederacy, Powelson now leads a campaign to revisit the tributes paid to Sir Francis Drake, best known for a 16th century sail that claimed California for England and less known for being a slave trader.
â€œChanging the names of things is significant because it is visceral and real to people,â€ says Powelson, founder of Tam Equity Campaign. â€œThrough these symbolic changes, we can have a substantive shift in local consciousness.â€
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava
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