When I first heard that hot-headed vandals had knocked down a statue honoring a Confederate leader or a slave trader, I confess that I felt a twinge of satisfaction. Slavery was a horrible institution, after all, of which some of my own ancestors were victims.
But where does the lawlessness, once it is unleashed, end?
Sometimes in more tragedy and even farce.
In Philadelphia, for example, some self-appointed comrades of the cancel culture threw red paint on the statue of abolitionist Matthias Baldwin on which they also spray-painted “murderer” and “colonizer.”
They might as well have painted “abolitionist.” Yes, Baldwin argued for the right of African Americans to vote in Pennsylvania during the state’s 1837 constitutional convention. He also helped to establish and personally fund a school for black children.
Folks, we African Americans have plenty of opponents of our freedom, past and present, to criticize without going after our allies.
In Whittier, California, someone smeared “BLM,” the initials of Black Lives Matter, and “(expletive) Slave Owners” on a statue of poet John Greenleaf Whittier, after whom the town is named.
Again, Whittier, a prominent Quaker, was a leading advocate for the abolition of slavery. Perhaps the perpetrators of the crime against his statue confused him with Francis Scott Key, the slave owner who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A statue in his honor was toppled in San Francisco during recent protests.
In Boston, crowds gathered peacefully June 28, lending their voices to nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died beneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
But late in the day, some of the protesters turned into vandals and defaced, of all things, a Civil War monument that honors the first all-Black and all-volunteer regiment in the Union Army.
Remember the movie “Glory”? Yeah, those guys. Those great fighters for Black freedom.
Of course, I can’t eliminate the possibility that the crime was perpetrated by some ultra-right racists, hoping to embarrass the left. That’s another problem with taking your issue to the streets with unlawful actions. You can make yourself too easy to blame for somebody else’s vandalism.
I didn’t shed a tear when statues of the Confederacy’s President Jefferson Davis or leading slavery defender John C. Calhoun, a two-time vice president of the United States, were toppled. Call me old-fashioned, but I think we should be civilized enough in this country to find new homes for our old artifacts from a misbegotten time without unlawfully destroying property.
The Civil War is supposed to be over. Remember?
People have long memories. You can see the durability of that observation in the recent controversy in Washington over a statue known locally as the Emancipation Memorial.
Funded by emancipated slaves and dedicated by Frederick Douglass in 1876, it stands a few blocks from the Capitol in a square called Lincoln Park.
But even when it was built, it stirred controversy over its design. It depicts Lincoln standing tall over a shirtless black man in broken shackles and on one knee.
He may be rising, as the monument’s defenders tend to say, or he may be taking a knee, as some of the critics believe, suggesting a subservient position next to the dominant white man.
Protesters recently rallied at the park, which is managed by the National Park Service, to call for its removal. Some defenders, dressed in period clothes, also were given a chance to speak. The arguments were fierce and, fortunately, peaceful.
Nonvoting delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s only representative in Congress, announced her intention to introduce legislation to have the statue removed and placed in a museum.
In a Washington Post essay, Yale historian and Douglass biographer David W. Blight recently called for an arts commission that could preserve the original monument while adding new statues to put it into a proper context.
Douglass, the former slave who became a great abolitionist, statesman, journalist and diplomat, had a similar idea, according to a letter recently unearthed by Smithsonian magazine.
“The mere act of breaking the negro’s chains was the act of Abraham Lincoln, and is beautifully expressed in this monument,” Douglass wrote. But the 15th Amendment and black male suffrage had come under President Ulysses S. Grant, “and this is nowhere seen in the Lincoln monument.”
Indeed, statues should tell a story. A beautiful example comes to mind in the way the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial stands, arms folded and gazing across the Tidal Basin at the memorial of founding father and slaveholder Thomas Jefferson.
King’s silent gaze appears to be saying, “I’m not here to topple your dream of freedom and equality. I’m just trying to make it come true.”
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.