Peter Dreier calls on Americans to build monuments to liberal heroes

Historians in the News
tags: Peter Dreier, Confederate Monuments



Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (Nation Books).

The current controversy over whether to dismantle statues of some prominent Confederate figures is a battle over whom we admire and consider as heroes. It is also a battle over who has power to shape how we view our history.

“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” President Donald Trump said last month after the struggle in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. “So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?”

In May, the New Orleans City Council declared monuments of Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Gen. PGT Beauregard public nuisances and had them removed. In August, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered Confederate monuments removed from the city’s public spaces. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, directed the dismantling of a statue in front of the State House of Roger Taney — a Supreme Court justice who was chief author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision that ruled that African-Americans could not be American citizens. Earlier this month, in response to student protests, Yale University renamed Calhoun College — a residential complex named for John C. Calhoun, a senator from South Carolina, vice president and influential advocate for slavery — Hopper College, after Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper, a computer pioneer and naval officer. To buttress the symbolism, Yale removed a portrait of Calhoun from a dining hall.

The New York Times recently published a list of the Confederate monuments that are now subject of controversy in cities across the country.

Not surprisingly, most monuments celebrate political, business and military figures. You can criss-cross the country and find statues, schools, government and university buildings, museums, parks, and streets celebrating presidents, senators, governors, jurists, inventor-entrepeneurs, founders of major corporations, generals and fallen soldiers. But our veneration of them often comes at the expense of recognizing other citizens who had a major role in shaping our nation’s history.

Shouldn’t we also honor the organizers, activists, artists, writers, athletes, judges, and occasional elected officials who fought to make the United States a more humane and inclusive country? What about the pioneers who built movements and gave voice to the struggles for women’s suffrage, protecting the environment and consumers, putting an end to lynching, giving workers the right to form unions, and pushing for a progressive income tax, a federal minimum wage, old-age insurance, the 8-hour workday and government-subsidized health care and housing? ...




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