Rep. Clyburn on Confederate statues: Mob action is no answer

In an atrocious act of cultural terrorism, Afghanistan’s “Buddhas of Bamiyan” were obliterated in 2001 under orders of then-Taliban leader Mullah Omar. But in other instances throughout history and across the globe, statue removal — for the righteous or for those who are misguided — is a sign of power and ascension.  

After the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated, thousands of Lenin monuments were torn down by long-frustrated victims of Soviet totalitarianism. It would not be wrong to think that most citizens in China and both Koreas would love to burn down (if they could) Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine, which memorializes the souls of many of Japan’s military dead, including convicted Class A war criminals. But Japan is a powerful sovereign country that still tolerates this memorial that whitewashes its crimes against millions in Asia during World War II.  

The ongoing negotiation of the historical record is nothing new and, as power relationships of victor and vanquished shift, so too do the symbols of cultural and political history. Sometimes moral purpose enlightens which monuments go and which stay — but not always. 

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Today America is struggling with the renegotiation of its own historic symbols. Every statue along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. — except those of Gen. Robert E. Lee and of Black tennis star Arthur Ashe — has been torn down, ostensibly by or following the demands of protesters angry at the glorification of Confederate generals and politicians who protected the institution of American slavery and were traitors who waged war on the United States. Lee’s statue is scheduled to be removed in the near future, pending a court’s ruling, while Arthur Ashe’s statue has been defaced, reportedly by a “white lives matter” protester. 

Confederate statues have come down all over the nation. But so too, in Madison, Wis., has a statue commemorating a woman abolitionist and suffragette, torn down by those frustrated with racial injustice in America. And so was a statue in San Francisco memorializing Union general and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, because protesters there believed he was a slave owner.

Former Congressional Black Caucus chairman and now House Majority Whip Jim ClyburnJames (Jim) Enos ClyburnMaxine Waters expresses confidence Biden will pick Black woman as VP Kanye West 'not denying' his campaign seeks to damage Biden Clyburn: 'No question' Kanye West effort is attempt to take votes from Biden MORE’s take on reexamining and correcting America’s systemic racism, on rearranging the statues in our pantheons, is to sensibly deliberate these things through discussion and debate, not to engage in blind mob action. In an interview with The Hill, Clyburn (D-S.C.) said he was appalled by the attack on the statue of Grant. He said:

“Ignorance is bliss. And that is to say I’m a big advocate of people sitting down around the table and having sensible discussions, and if they were to have sensible discussions about these things, people would be more careful about anything that resembles mob action. And that is what has happened to Ulysses Grant. I know enough about history to know that Ulysses Grant was the best friend that former slaves had coming out of the Civil War. I know that what caused him great pause when he was about to get married — the young lady he wanted to marry, he had real problems that her family owned slaves. I know that he was made the gift of a slave that he set free, and I think that if people knew Ulysses Grant’s history, they would not tear down his statue. 

“That’s why we have to be careful. You go through this, all the people who lived though this period of time did not advocate slavery. He never did. He was just the opposite. So it is a big mistake on the part of anybody to tear down his statue. And that applies to a lot of others.”

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On the other side of this equation, Clyburn expressed his support for ridding positions of honor for those who fought for and built their careers on the subjugation of Black slaves. He continued: “Look … here in South Carolina — we have two statues, one of John C. Calhoun, one of the biggest proponents of slavery, and I’m glad to see that Charleston, S.C., took his statue down and Clemson took his name off its honors college. I think we ought to go through all of these things. I think Wade Hampton has no business representing South Carolina up there in Statuary Hall in the (U.S.) Capitol.”

Clyburn — along with House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Negotiators 'far apart' as talks yield little ahead of deadline On The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Overnight Health Care: Ohio governor tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of Trump's visit | US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead | Trump: COVID-19 vaccine may be ready 'right around' Election Day MORE (D-Md.), Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeIt's past time to be rid of the legacy of Jesse Helms Democrats introduce bill to repeal funding ban on abortions abroad Democrats hope clash resonates with key bloc: Women MORE (D-Calif.), Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen BassKaren Ruth BassHuffPost reporter: Biden's VP shortlist doesn't suggest progressive economic policies Biden campaign says no VP pick yet after bike trail quip Hillary Clinton roasts NYT's Maureen Dowd over column MORE (D-Calif.), Reps. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonProgressive Caucus co-chair: Reported oversight change in intelligence office 'seems a bit...fascist' House lawmakers to launch probe into DHS excluding NY from Trusted Traveler Program Cuomo says Wolf, Cuccinelli violated oath of office and should be investigated MORE (D-Miss.) and G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldRep. Clyburn on Confederate statues: Mob action is no answer House passes police reform bill that faces dead end in Senate Black Caucus rallies behind Meeks for Foreign Affairs gavel MORE Jr. (D-N.C.) — have deliberated and heard different views on how history’s major leaders should and should not be represented in the U.S. Capitol. They have introduced H.R. 7573, a bill that would, among other things, replace the bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who delivered the majority opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott case. Taney ruled that African Americans could not be considered citizens of the U.S. and that slavery could not be abolished. Clyburn and his allies want to replace Taney’s bust with that of Black civil rights lawyer and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the old Supreme Court Chamber. 

Clyburn emphasized that they are not seeking to destroy Taney’s bust or any other statues but simply to remove them. Their bill requires that statues celebrating those who protected the institutions of slavery or segregation must be reclaimed by their states or be taken in by the Smithsonian Institution and managed with appropriate historical context. The bill also would require removal of any statues in National Statuary Hall to those who volunteered for the armed forces of the Confederacy during the Civil War. 

Ibram X. Kendi, in his acclaimed book, “How to be an Anti-Racist,” challenges everyone, including himself, with the responsibility of introspection and proactive steps to undo racist bias and the legacy of damage done over centuries in America. Statue removal is one part of this. But if we do so without deliberation, without context, without keeping these symbols of America’s sins against Black people who didn’t come to America because they wanted to but because they were forced to — as Rep. Clyburn expressed in his interview — somewhere in our “national cupboard” in order to remind people of those historic crimes, then progress isn’t achieved. 

What is clear is that this feels like a truly historic inflection point on racism in America because, when statues are toppled and removed, it’s a sign that power has shifted — in this case for the better — in our society. 

Steve Clemons is editor at large of The Hill and is part of The Hill’s series, “Reflections,” focusing on the legacy of systemic racism in America. Follow him on Twitter @SCClemons.