Our Gutsy Governor

By Peter Galuszka

On June 24, 2015, Nikki Haley, a Republican who was South Carolina’s first non-white governor, called for the removal of a Confederate flag that had been flying over the state’s capitol grounds for years.

“This flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state,” she said. Her action came a few days after an avowed white supremacist walked into an African-American church and opened fire, killing church members attending a service.

I was watching the news on TV when she made her gutsy move. I was deeply impressed.

And now, Ralph Northam, a Democrat who is governor of Virginia, has taken a similarly gutsy move. He has ordered that the state-owned statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee be removed from its stand on Monument Avenue in Richmond. It has been there for about 130 years, erected by white supremacists with deep sentiment for their romantic myths of Southern history.

“I believe in a Virginia that learns lessons from our past and we all know that our country needs that example right now,” Northam said.

In another show of guts, Northam refused the White House’s request that Virginia National Guard soldiers be sent to Washington, D.C., to buttress President Donald Trump’s calls for military shows of force against widespread rioting across the country after an unarmed and handcuffed African-American was killed by Minneapolis police.

The calls for the National Guard came after Trump ordered peaceful protestors removed forcibly by federal agents and soldiers so that he could walk through Lafayette Square next to the White House to use the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church for an utterly vulgar campaign stunt. Standing in front of the church, he was photographed holding an unopened Bible that had been carried in his daughter’s $1,000-plus handbag.

His calls for troops defied the Washington Metropolitan Police and brought fierce criticism from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.

Shortly afterwards, retired Marine Gen. and former Trump Secretary of Defense James Mattis made an extraordinarily sharp and unexpected rebuke of Trump and his campaign for using the military for his domestic political purposes. Mattis said that with Trump, the country has endured “three years without mature leadership.”

This is the extremely dangerous context in which Northam has taken his moves. No matter how much he is criticized by conservatives in the state, they can’t dismiss the point that he was a serving army doctor and understands very well that politicizing America’s military professionals is a very bad idea.

Liberals laud Northam because he has successfully brought progressive laws to the state including ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment and instituting badly needed gun controls.

Virginians have discussed for decades how to deal with Confederate memorials. The Old Dominion has more of them than any other state. Most originated with the Richmond-based United Daughters of the Confederacy that has peddled Southern mythology since it was formed in Nashville, Tenn. in the 19th century.

The memorial movement gained steam after Union occupation troops left the South after the Civil War and whites fought to take away post war political and economic gains that African-Americans had achieved.

In Richmond, Northam’s move is leading to others that will take down other statues of Confederate that effort is being led by Levar Stoney, the city’s young, African-American mayor.

In recent years such memorials have been used props for a variety of demonstrations by many sides. In 2015, the Lee statue in Richmond was the scene of anti-memorial protests as cameras whirred recording an international bicycle race, giving the issue global exposure.

As protestors protested and bicyclists zipped past, a small airplane flew in circles overhead towing a Confederate flag and a lettered statement that “Confederate Heros Matter.” I was covering the situation for a newspaper and noticed the misspelling of “Heroes.” Confederate flaggers later blamed the pilot for the mistake and put out a new, photo-shopped image on its digital outlets.

Moving a Lee statue was the reason and focus for a deadly protest in Charlottesville in 2017. The incident gave Virginia another global black eye.

In the last two weeks, Richmond’s monuments have been the focus of rioting, some of which involved looting and arson. They have also be the targets when city police tear-gassed peaceful protests.

Yes, the time has definitely come for the memorials to go from their current public places. I personally do not think they should be destroyed. They should be placed in appropriate spots accessible to the public with honest histories on signs nearby. We don’t need another months-long study by the Hunton & Williams law firm to explore the matter, as was done after the Charlottesville debacle.

Northam knows this and he’s right.

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