The Confederate monuments

The statue of Robert E. Lee and a Confederate soldier that has been removed from Lee Park in Dallas.

After a few months of debate, the statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee Park in Dallas has been removed. The monument was dedicated in 1936 by President Franklin Roosevelt. A national discussion is taking place over the placement of monuments honoring the Confederacy, of which Texas was a part, during the Civil War. What has taken place in Dallas strikes me as a bit precipitous and even strange in the sequence of events that preceded the removal.  On August 15, Mayor Mike Rawlings announced that he was appointing a task force that would issue a report within 90 days on what to do with the Confederate monuments in the city. In addition to the Lee statue, there is a Confederate War Memorial in downtown Dallas. Yet strangely, only days after the announcement of the task force, Rawlings made a dramatic pivot, and after a 13-1 City Council vote and various stops and starts, the statue has been removed. The removal came only a month after Rawlings announced the task force which, apparently, was never really involved in the process.  (One of the delays in the process occurred when a crane to be used in the removal was involved in a fatal traffic accident.) Now, in addition to ongoing consideration about the Confederate War Memorial, there is discussion on what to name the park as well as the possible renaming of streets in the city that bear the names of Confederate soldiers.

No doubt part of the rush occurred after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia over the removal of a Lee statue there. The national debate is a discussion worth having, so long as it’s a discussion and not hysteria, which unfortunately seems to have developed. For its part, The Dallas Morning News editorial page has been strongly supportive of the removal of the monuments. After the council’s initial decision to remove Lee’s statue, the  paper wrote an editorial strongly supportive of the decision, then updated the piece to express disappointment that a federal judge had intervened. (That intervention lasted only a day.) The paper’s editorial page somehow makes a distinction on Confederate symbols. In another editorial, the paper said that a decision by the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park to remove the six flags that had flown over Texas was a mistake. One of the flags, of course, is a Confederate flag that many, including myself, regard as offensive when used as a display. The paper said that the display of the flags represented historical fact, not a tribute. Someone needs to explain that distinction to me.

My personal opinion is that if a community wants to remove Confederate monuments, they should be removed. Thoughtful consideration and discussion need to occur, and if there are clear reasons and strong sentiment to remove the monuments, so be it. National polling indicates that a majority want to keep them. But it would seem to me that the monuments should be considered on a case-by-case basis. I have seen no real polling specific to Dallas except for an unscientific texting poll by one of the television stations (with more than 80 percent saying the monuments should remain), but I suspect the majority in Dallas would like for the monuments to remain. For this reason, I believe the mayor and the council acted way too quickly. One thing is for certain: The Lee monument will never be returned to public space in the park. At this time, it’s not certain where the statue will end up.

I think I understand, and can agree with a certain sentiment, dealing with the offensive nature of some of the monuments. Interpreting the presence of such monuments in public space as a vestige of support for slavery can be understood.  I fear many of the people protesting the Robert E. Lee statue know little about who the man was. I would be encouraged to know that everyone understood Lee’s reluctance for war, as well as his record of reconciliation after the war. None of that seems to matter. And more than more, there is no national discussion. There is only shouting and anger. A lot of the anger, and perhaps some of the impetus for removal of the monuments, seems fueled by people who are still mad that Donald Trump was elected president. (Advice to those mad about Trump: Get out and work to develop other candidates, including at the state level, who can win elections. Honestly, I’m not sure I see that happening. But that’s a blog item for another day.)

For some time, I’ve had two absolute limits on the removal of Confederate monuments. We shouldn’t remove monuments from historic battlefield sites. The National Park Service has wisely announced that Confederate monuments, including a statue of Lee, will not be removed from the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. And we should never remove monuments related to cemeteries or in anyway disrespect the graves of Confederate soldiers. (For guidance on this subject, see the graves of almost 500 soldiers who fought for Nazi Germany maintained with dignity and respect by the British in the Bayeux War Cemetery in Normandy, France.)

The Confederate War Memorial near City Hall is more problematic because it’s a 60-foot-tall column topped by a statute of a Confederate soldier. Moving it will be difficult, and finding a permanent place to house the monument could prove even more difficult.  The initial estimates on the cost of moving the Lee statue were about $500,000. Higher costs will no doubt be involved with the Confederate War Memorial.

I have never been certain what is really being accomplished by moving the monuments. The racial issues that have plagued this country since its founding won’t be going away. If removal of the monuments would help even incrementally, I would say that the process and the costs will have been worth it. I also wonder whether there will be a political price to be paid by Rawlings and certain members of the City Council. I have a suspicion that Rawlings and some of the council who voted to remove the Lee statue so quickly didn’t fully understand public sentiment. And I have no problem with Rawlings pushing to move the monuments. I do have a problem with announcing a task force to study the issue for 90 days, then abruptly deciding that the Lee monument should be moved. Let me be clear that I think very highly of Rawlings as a person and as a mayor. I think he has led Dallas very well. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think elected officials should do what they say.

Now there’s a discussion to change the names of a number of Dallas Independent School District schools. Among the famous people “requiring further study” as being appropriate for school names are Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Sam Houston. These are in addition to those schools named for Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, William L. Cabell, and Stonewall Jackson.

I don’t know where it goes from here. I only hope that requiring further study produces more thoughtful input and response than was given the removal of the Lee statue.