Let communities decide fate of statues

If you blinked, you would never see the town of Laclede, Mo.

This community of 400 is by all appearances, just like every other sleepy little town in the Midwest; an anonymous face among the thousands dotting our rural landscape.

But this town has a former resident who sets it apart from the masses: Gen. John J. Pershing.

For the vast majority who know little or nothing about American World War I history, Gen. Pershing was a big deal back then. In 1919, he was named via a special act of Congress, General of the Armies of the United States, which is one rank above a five-star general. On a side note, Congress would later posthumously award the same honor to Gen. Washington so his rank wouldn’t be dwarfed by Pershing.

Needless to say, Laclede is pretty darn proud of their most famous resident and his achievements. So when his boyhood home was purchased by the state in the 1950s to be converted into a historic site, it seemed natural for a statue to be erected.

The community naturally rallied around the fundraising campaign honoring their favorite son, and in cooperation with the state, the statue was erected in 1959, with a major dedication ceremony the following year.

I’m very familiar with the statue and the now national historic site it is located upon as I lived in Laclede for most of the 1990s. I have seen firsthand the pride residents still take in Gen. Pershing, with his memory honored by an annual 4-day celebration in September.

As such, I can say with full confidence if anyone even suggested tearing down that statue, a riot would ensue.

Naturally, the possibility of removing that statue seems inconceivable. Absurd. Completely out of the realm of possibility.

I couldn’t help but think of that statue again as I watched the turmoil unfold last weekend in Charlottesville. Protestors and anti-protestors besieged the community over the potential removal of a statue honoring one of Virginia’s favorite sons, Gen. Robert E. Lee.

This is a scene that has played out in several southern communities as more and more Confederate monuments, symbols, and statues are being removed.

What I find most ironic regarding this controversy and specifically the one in Charlottesville, beyond the fact Lee himself didn’t want statues honoring him, is how the issue over honoring individuals who wanted less federal interference in their daily lives has in fact, become a federal issue.

Seemingly with all things controversial today, what to do with Confederate monuments and symbols has become a political issue, with even the President weighing in this week, expressing remorse at their removal.

Personally, I find myself sympathizing more with those wanting to remove the monuments than those who support them, and I feel confident in saying that has little to do with the general repulsiveness of the white supremacists in general.

Lee specifically was a man who as an army officer, took an oath that he would “support the Constitution of the United States of America.” Regardless of reasons, he betrayed that oath and he betrayed his country in order to support his home state of Virginia. As a result of those actions, thousands upon thousands of American soldiers and citizens died.

We teach our children our actions have consequences, and in my mind, the consequence of Lee’s actions and that of his fellow officers include a tarnished legacy that shouldn’t involve statues and other means of honor.

But … that’s just one guy’s opinion and unless I live in Charlottesville, New Orleans, or somewhere else in the south where this is being debated, it’s an opinion that has no weight.

What happens with these monuments is a decision that should be entirely made by the community where it resides. If the municipal leaders of town X want to commemorate the memory of Robert E. Lee, Lee Harvey Oswald, or Oswald Patton, that’s their prerogative.

In modern day Germany, you won’t find any statues to Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goring, Heinrich Himmler or other Nazi figures. In fact, you won’t even find a Swastika on display in Germany as they drafted laws long ago banning all Nazi symbols, while also making it illegal to even deny the Holocaust happened.

The moral evils of the Nazi party and its guiding philosophy is indisputable and as such, nowhere near the equivalent of the Confederacy and the Civil War. As such, having a similar national mandate seems not only excessive, but un-American.

As such, this feels like a decision that should be made by those most affected: the people living there.

A few years ago, Penn State University officials took down a statue honoring longtime football coach Joe Paterno following revelations of rampant sexual abuse occurring in his program.

While Paterno was never directly implicated, it was obvious he was partially responsible for not doing more to prevent it.

So university officials decided with that tarnished legacy, and to help promote healing for survivors, to take down the statue. Yes, there were Paterno supporters who protested it, but ultimately, it was the university’s statue and their decision to make.

Theses statues belong to the South and the communities where they reside. I would hope the same sense of conviction that struck Penn State officials would motivate residents to relocate the statues and monuments to a museum instead of prominently displaying them in a place of honor.

But ultimately, you can’t force someone to be nice who doesn’t want to be. And if residents of these communities want to continue honoring individuals we don’t agree deserve it, that is there imperative.

Anything less would be un-American.

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