Monumental decisions

Mike KnaakEditorial, Print Sartell - St. Stephen, Print St. JosephLeave a Comment

Removing statues of slave traders or traitorous generals who took up arms against the United States is an easy call. These men can be remembered in museums, not honored in town squares.

Likewise, forts Bragg, Hood, Benning and other military installations named for Confederate generals should be renamed. Government facilities should not honor those who betrayed it.

Taking down statues, while an important symbolic move, is only a first step to seriously confronting racism in society.

We’re being distracted by a debate about what other statues should be removed. We usually place on pedestals people to honor and emulate. Now what is the new standard?

Protestors tried to drag down President Andrew Jackson’s statue in Washington’s Lafayette Park because he signed the Indian Removal Act. Others seek to remove statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they were slaveholders.

Donald Trump’s rally at Mount Rushmore last week focused attention on the other two presidents memorialized there – Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Native Americans in Mankato but commuted the sentences of 265 others. Roosevelt’s racist quote about Native Americans tarnishes his reputation.

Some Minnesotans are reviving a debate about how the city of Albert Lea was named. In 1835, Albert Miller Lea surveyed southern Minnesota and northern Iowa including what is now Albert Lea. Years later, during the Civil War, Lea was an engineering officer in the Confederate Army. Should we seriously consider a new name for that city?

At the Capitol grounds in St. Paul, Christopher Columbus left in June and former Twins owner Cal Griffith’s statue is gone from Target Field because of his history of racist remarks.

Remaining Capitol statues include Leif Erikson, declared to have “discovered” America, and famed aviator and Little Falls native son Charles Lindbergh, whose America First views are still troubling to many, including the Jewish community.

There is also the towering bronze likeness of Knute Nelson of Alexandria, a “brave son of Norway,” who served Minnesota as a legislator, congressman, governor and eventually U.S. senator. The Nelson Act of 1889 relocated Indigenous Minnesotans to the White Earth Reservation and sold their land to European settlers.

New York Times conservative columnist Brett Stephens last week offered a standard of which statues to do away with and which to keep. The issue, he writes, comes down to four words – a more perfect union.

“Did Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee fight for a more perfect union? No. They fought for disunion. Outside of museums, grave sites or private collections, there should be no statues of either man or of their senior confederates,” Stephens wrote.

We should be able to decide between who made our union more perfect and those who made it less so.

Most of the Confederate monuments were built in periods of racial conflict, such as when Jim Crow laws were being introduced in the late 19th century and at the start of the 20th century.

The peak in construction of Civil War monuments occurred between the late 1890s up to 1920. The purpose of the monuments was not to celebrate the past but rather to promote a white supremacist future – the right of white men to rule and exclude black people.

Yes, let’s topple or remove statues of traitors and racists. But the larger cause is to topple the systemic racism that is widespread in government, education and business.

Author: Mike Knaak

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