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Preserving the monuments of a controversial past

By D.G. Martin Contributing Columnist

July 8, 2014

“You see him and ask: ‘Why is the statue still here? What was it he actually stood for?’ This is the kind of debate that a public work of art makes possible. We won’t change the way people think just by getting rid of a monument.”


The mayor of one of Mecklenburg’s largest municipalities is defending the refusal to remove a statue of a hero of another era, but one who today offends many residents.


This raises again the question of what to do about the statues, building names and the nicknames and mascots of sports teams that offend and demean groups of our people.


For example, how should we have responded when students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill this spring demanded a name change for the building known as Saunders Hall because William C. Saunders had been the leader of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War?


Or when students suggested that the “Silent Sam” statue in the center of the old campus should come down because it glorifies the institution of slavery that the soldier fought to preserve?


Or when some American Indians, now backed by the United States government, insisted that the Washington Redskins change its name to something other than a derogatory term for an important American ethnic group?


Or when a group of African-American law students at Washington and Lee University demanded that their school apologize for the racism of the iconic general who gave his name to their university because of his actions in support of slavery?


When these things happen, many of us respond like the Mecklenburg mayor, who says that you can change street names and tear down monuments, but the history remains. The mayor acknowledges that the old society represented by the statue “is not good. But that legacy is something all sides can learn to deal with without revising history.”


In North Carolina, if we decide to remove the reminders of every representative of our racist past, we will have a lot of work to do. Most prominent white North Carolinians a hundred years ago would, by today’s standards, be judged racist.


For instance, Gov. Charles B. Aycock was once so much a hero to North Carolina’s progressives that Terry Sanford displayed his picture in his office when he was governor. Last month, Duke University, which Sanford led from 1969 to 1985, has removed Aycock’s name from a campus building.


Even the sainted Robert E. Lee is not exempt. According to The Roanoke Times, the Washington and Lee law school students insist, “The time has come for us, as students, to ask that the university hold itself responsible for its past and present dishonorable conduct and for the racist and dishonorable conduct of Robert E. Lee.”


Back to the Mecklenburg mayor and her battle to preserve the monuments to the past, even if the past is discredited. Her name is Angelika Gramkow. She is not the mayor of a North Carolina city or town. She is the mayor of Schwerin, the capital of the German region that gave our Mecklenburg its name.


Until 25 years ago, the German Mecklenburg was a part of East Germany. The controversial statue that the mayor is fighting to preserve is a 13-foot-tall bronze depiction of Vladimir Lenin. Lenin was the leader of the Russian Revolution, as much an icon of the Communist movement as General Lee was to the Confederacy.


If you agree with the mayor that this historical monument should be preserved, you should know that she is probably fighting a losing battle with other Mecklenburgers who do not want to keep a monument to the painful and oppressive Communist past that the Lenin statue represents.


So, if you want to see that statue of Lenin in German Mecklenburg, you had better hurry.


D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.