Should Statues Of Historic Figures With Complicated Pasts Be Taken Down?
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Justice.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Justice.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Here in Washington, D.C., last night, protesters in Lafayette Square right by the White House tried to take down a statue of President Andrew Jackson. Jackson was a slave owner. His policies were also deadly for thousands of Native Americans.
Police stopped these protesters, but statues are coming down around the U.S., yanked down or removed by local governments. So what should be the standard for taking down a statue? Manisha Sinha, a Civil War historian at the University of Connecticut, says when it comes to, say, Robert E. Lee, take it down.
MANISHA SINHA: It always astonished me as a Civil War historian to see statues commemorating Confederate generals and politicians who had literally committed treason against this country in order to uphold human bondage.
GREENE: But what about historical figures with complicated, often racist histories who were also Union generals or former presidents? So now we've moved into a different phase. There are statues being targeted of people like Ulysses S. Grant, of people like President George Washington, who were not involved in the Confederacy. They did, though, own slaves. So what do you think of moving into a broader swath of statues coming down and - or being targeted?
SINHA: Well, I think it is important not to go from one extreme to the other. And while it is true that many of the Virginian Founding Fathers - Washington, Jefferson, Madison - all owned slaves, we put up their statues not to commemorate their slave holding but for different reasons. So these statues, I think, need to be contextualized historically. We shouldn't shy from the fact that many of these men were slave owners, but we should also be able to judge each case individually. The Confederate statues have no redeeming qualities to them, but other statues certainly do.
I was really dismayed to see the statue of Grant, especially, come down because Grant was never comfortable with owning that one slave that was given to him by his father-in-law. He freed that slave. This was before he became president or even commanded the Union Army. And then he went on, in fact, to defeat the Confederacy, which was extremely important in the destruction of slavery. We should be able to discuss these historical figures and discuss what we admire about them and what we don't admire so much.
GREENE: But is there an argument that removing these statues could help further the fight for racial equality in our country?
SINHA: I think when you go down that slippery slope, maybe it might backfire. So for instance, a lot of the sort of backlash against taking down Confederate statues was precisely this. Opponents said, well, if you're going to take down Jefferson Davis, the next day you're going to take down George Washington. And that was simply not correct.
GREENE: You said something interesting. You said that moving to statues like George Washington and the Founding Fathers is going from one extreme to another extreme. What is that extreme? Like, what do you see is at stake here if the number of statues being removed really broadens?
SINHA: I think then it becomes a purely destructive exercise, a way you are simply destroying all monuments and all statues. Statues of Washington or Grant, et cetera are begging for historical contextualization. We can do that. So for instance, I just read today that the Museum of Natural History wants to take down a statue of Theodore Roosevelt that has an African American man and a Native American man standing alongside him while he's astride on a horse. And that is, in fact, a very imperialist vision. But I think a better idea there would have been to actually remove the statues of the African American man and the Native American man and maybe let Teddy Roosevelt be there to commend him for his support of conservation and his support for the Natural History Museum.
GREENE: Oh, so actually edit the arrangement of the statues. Take away these men who seem to be inferior to Roosevelt, but leave him.
SINHA: Exactly. Take away anything that smacks of the sort of imperialist legacy which clearly that statue embodies. With most American figures, certainly most presidents, you will find many reasons to actually criticize them and criticize their record, even our heroes. Like, FDR, after all, was responsible for the internment of Japanese American citizens.
GREENE: Has your view on all of this changed since George Floyd was killed and we've seen such anger on the streets and such a growing movement at this moment?
SINHA: I've been against it all along. And I think most Civil War historians have been against Confederate statues - if not removal, at least with contextualization. I think the difference that George Floyd's murder has made and that's been a bit heartening for me is that ordinary American citizens have finally realized what these statues symbolize and how they have been a standing affront for African Americans and their quest for equal citizenship in this country because Black Americans have always been against it. I think the difference that Floyd's murder has made is that most American citizens are finally realizing what they represent.
GREENE: Professor, thank you so much for your time.
SINHA: Thank you for having me.
GREENE: Historian Manisha Sinha is the author of "The Slave's Cause: A History Of Abolition." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.