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Commentary: Why one historian changed his mind about the Calhoun monument

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Robert Macdonald

Robert Macdonald. Staff/file 

The tide of history has finally caught up with John C. Calhoun.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and City Council are to be commended for their announcement that they will vote Tuesday to remove this shrine to white supremacy, an ideology that, sadly, is part of America’s DNA.

Unfortunately, it took the unjustified killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks by the police to reignite the debate on the role of racism in American history.

It is a heritage that has seen the enslavement of Africans, genocide against Native Americans, the era of Jim Crow and the lynching of African Americans, restrictive immigration laws to exclude the Chinese, and the internment of Japanese U.S. citizens at the beginning of World War II.

It continues to be witnessed by ongoing inequality in housing, schooling and health care, as well as the massive incarceration of blacks and the building of a border wall to keep out immigrants, most of whom are brown.

Americans are again required to reexamine our complicated history and national identity. What to do about Confederate symbols and shrines celebrating the “Lost Cause,” a campaign to maintain the system of white supremacy and racial slavery?

NASCAR has banned Confederate flags from its races. Congress is discussing renaming military bases honoring Confederate generals. Confederate monuments have been moved and vandalized in Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina and Florida.

One of the most unsettling of these shrines — one that has dominated Marion Square for 124 years — is coming down.

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Three years ago, in a series of opinion pieces in this newspaper, I argued that the John C. Calhoun monument should not be removed. As a historian, I saw it as an essential educational opportunity.

But to be a viable source of learning, it needed more context. A city commission proposed a plaque full of words. Rightfully, it was rejected as inadequate. In a Dec. 14, 2017, op-ed, I suggested the alternative of placing a new monument dedicated to the victims of white supremacy adjacent to the Calhoun monument to complement Marion Square’s nearby Holocaust Memorial, which is dedicated to the victims of another racist ideology.

However, much has changed since then. The continued killing of unarmed black men and women by police and others, the growing inequalities among whites and nonwhites and the raucous return of white supremacists have led to the right decision to remove and relocate the Calhoun statue.

I suggest we do more than take the Calhoun statue down. The statue’s base and column could be repurposed as the memorial I had earlier proposed.

The column’s support could include quotes from the Declaration of Independence, civil rights hero Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 sermon at the Lincoln Memorial and others speaking to “Our Better Angels.”

Where Calhoun’s statue stood on top of the column, there would be an eternal flame dedicated to the victims of white supremacy and those who have dedicated and continue to dedicate themselves to the creation of a more perfect American democracy.

Robert R. Macdonald is director emeritus of Museum of the City of New York and currently lives in Mount Pleasant.

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