The bureaucratic red tape that normally prevents politicians from rapidly changing their cityscapes is falling away as protesters demanding racial justice insist that Confederate monuments be swept into the dustbin of history.
But more than bronze statues are being discarded. The University of Kentucky announced Friday that it would remove a controversial mural of enslaved Africans and Native Americans from its walls. In Louisiana, Nicholls State University officials have also scrapped the names of two college buildings dedicated to Confederate generals. And an hour’s drive away in New Orleans, city lawmakers are preparing to rename Jefferson Davis Parkway after Norman C. Francis, a civil rights pioneer who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.
“Our streets and shared rights of way are littered with vestiges of a racist past,” said New Orleans Council member Jason Williams in a statement to NPR. “We cannot allow honors given to war criminals to remain when the people who bestowed those honors don’t represent our values.”
The renewed sense of urgency has been fueled by George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer now charged with murder. Motivated by civil unrest, politicians are now scrambling to make good on years-old promises to remove statues and other subtle homages to the Confederacy from their streets.
“A real reckoning is here,” said Kirk Savage, an art historian at the University of Pittsburgh who has written extensively on Confederate imagery. “Confederate monuments have become targets because they are powerful expressions of the brutal practices that led to Floyd’s murder; they are the artworks that gild the system.”
Earlier this week, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said he would rather violate state law and pay a $25,000 fine than face more civil unrest, choosing to remove a Confederate monument from city grounds after demonstrators graffitied the 52-foot-tall granite obelisk with Black Lives Matter slogans.
And in the cradle of the Confederacy, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced on Thursday that the state would begin clearing Confederate structures from the Richmond capital after protesters targeted its many symbols of slavery, including a 130-year-old statue of Robert E. Lee on horseback.
The last push to remove Confederate symbols came in 2017 after a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned violent. Several cities embarked on processes to remove the offending statuary, only to run aground of faltering budgets, community backlash, and political apprehension.
That was the case in Philadelphia, where a statue of Frank Rizzo — an ardent critic of desegregation who had served as the city’s mayor and police commissioner — came down because of protesters in a matter of days, three years after Mayor Jim Kenney first promised its removal.
But some experts are advising leaders to think twice about whether to trash their rejected Confederate markers or preserve them. “Slow down,” cautioned Harriet Senie, an art historian at The City College of New York specializing in public memorials. “I think it’s important that we own our history. We can take down all the Confederate monuments in this country, but that will not end racism if we can’t learn from them.”
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