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MITCHELL: Charlottesville forces the debate over Confederate symbols

The statue of Confederate Army of Northern Virginia Gen. Robert E. Lee stands in Charlottesville, Virginia | Cliff Owen/Associated Press

The terrorist attack in Charlottesville has forced us to deal with a problem that has been festering since the beginning of Reconstruction.

What do we do with Confederate symbols and statues that honor those who fought to preserve slavery in America? It is a question that pops up whenever there is a horrific hate crime.

After white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African-American worshippers at a historic church in Charleston, S.C. in 2015, then-Gov. Nikki Haley called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the state capitol.

“That flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state,” she said at the time.


Although these symbols hold a sacred place in the hearts of many Southerners, they are an insult to African-Americans whose ancestors lived and died under the cruel lash of slavery.

That brings me to poor Abraham Lincoln.

Last week, Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) linked the vandalism of a bust of Lincoln in West Englewood to President Donald Trump’s assertion that “both sides” were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, VA. during a march organized by avowed racists.

“[W]hen he refuses to refute what their actions are, you embolden people to continue,” Lopez told the Sun-Times.

Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when a car being driven by James Alex Fields, 20, ran into a crowd of counter-protesters.

Lopez maintains that vandals deliberately defaced “Old Abe” because of the controversy in Charlottesville, which, frankly, would be surprising.

After all, West Englewood is more than 95 percent black.

Whether you agree or disagree with historians on Lincoln’s intentions with respect to the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the first history lessons black children learn in grade school is that he freed the slaves.

Lincoln signed the Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, declaring that all the slaves in the states that were in rebellion would be forever free — about 3 million people.

I doubt that vandals tried to destroy Lincoln’s bust because of anything going on in Charlottesville.

This just sounds like the kind of destruction that goes on when people don’t respect public art.

Indeed, a West Englewood resident told a reporter: “People were out partying on the 4th of July and lighting fireworks off of it.”

That shows a lack of respect for both the art and the history.

Apparently before the latest vandals took a whack at it, the bust had already been defaced with graffiti and its nose was chipped away.

It is the neighborhood’s shame — and the city’s — that a statue that has been a symbol of freedom in West Englewood for more than a century has been vandalized repeatedly, and Lopez is right to call out the city for that.

Meanwhile, activists — pro and con — are beginning to debate the fate of Confederate symbols.

“There are more than 700 Confederate monuments spread across 31 states—including Union states such as Massachusetts and border states such as Maryland,” USA Today reported.

In many of those states, efforts are already underway to remove the statues, but in others residents are taking matters into their own hands.

For instance, in Durham, N.C., demonstrators have been arrested for toppling a Confederate monument.

In Chicago, it’s not Confederate symbols that are bugging aldermen. It’s fascism.

Alds. Ed Burke (14th) and Gilbert Villegas (36th) want to remove a monument to Italo Balbo, given to Chicago by Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1933, Michael Sneed reported.

The city’s latest monument of significance was installed last summer in Marquette Park to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1966 historic march.

Community organizers pointed out at the time that the memorial did not just “honor the past,” but “points toward hope for the future.”

That should be the test when municipalities tackle this emotionally-charged issue.