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Letter: A monumental dilemma

  • L. Phillips Runyon stands in his office Tuesday, April 25, 2017. (Abby Kessler/ Monadnock Ledger-Transcript)


Tuesday, August 22, 2017 12:19AM

The events in Charlottesville tragically dramatized how difficult it is to decide what to do about monuments to people who stood for — and now personify — things we no longer want to glorify.

The Confederate flag led us into this quagmire. I was born in North Carolina and when we moved here in 1974, I had a tie and a T-shirt with the flag on them. In my mind they stood for the fact that I was from the South — no more, no less. Times and interpretations change, though, and while that flag still looks exactly the same, anyone who wears or waves it now is making an entirely different statement.

But flags are easy to take down. What do we do about bronze and marble monuments to the people who fought under them, to preserve a system that’s now repugnant by almost everyone’s measure? Some have suggested letting them stand, but using plaques and signage to provide “context” about the times in which they were erected. Others feel that these huge structures are just too offensive and hurtful to remain in their prominent public places.

My hometown may have arrived at the best solution. Its Confederate monument stood prominently on Main Street until a suspicious accident knocked it down. Following a debate that went on for several years, the decision was made not to re-erect the monument where it had stood, but to move it to a rural cemetery where most of the town’s Confederate soldiers were buried. Surely, there were some who felt their ancestors’ “heritage” had been betrayed, but the furor died quickly, and the monument was no longer so blatantly “in the face” of those who found it a daily insult.

All those monuments to Lee, Davis and Jackson could be dealt with in comparable fashion — or they could be melted down or broken up if that’s the prevailing local sentiment. Then there could be a plaque or sign placed on the empty base that might adequately describe the context.

Even that won't end the debate, however.  The Red Sox owners now want to rename Yawkey Way outside Fenway Park, because long-time owner Tom Yawkey resisted integration of the team until 1959, making the Red Sox the last team to do so 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I certainly understand their point, but then what do we do here in New Hampshire about our own Franklin Pierce, who was an apologist for slavery and vehemently criticized the Emancipation Proclamation?  Or about all the colleges, schools, towns and parks named after him and after our dozen or more other presidents who actually owned slaves?

The slope is slippery, no matter how good the intentions are.  One thing is clear, though.  The debate has to be conducted civilly, so we don't have more Charlottesvilles.

L. Phillips Runyon III is a University of Virginia School of Law graduate and a former district court judge. He currently practices law in Peterborough.