Oftentimes on Sunday after church you can find me in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood walking with my children and admiring some of the city’s beautiful architecture, and historic monuments. For too many years, I’ve struggled to explain to them the meaning of one statue in particular: former Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, the author of the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, which stated that “the Black man had no rights that the White man was bound to respect.”
In a world where my children saw the nation’s first Black president and family occupy the White House, I can see their tiny faces grappling with the two realities of the only country they’ve ever known. How can there be a monument to a racist who suggested people like them have no rights, while at the same time, we have witnessed a Black man occupy the highest and most powerful position in the world?
Benjamin Jealous (Courtesy Photo0
Rather than attempt to re-write history, I often end up explaining to my children our nation’s tortured past and that during those times, there were many many others who stood up and fought for the better America we live in today – where a Black man could become president, and even perhaps their Black father could be the next Governor of Maryland.
The tragic events of Charlottesville are a sobering reminder that when we allow these symbols of hate to stand, the consequences could be far more dangerous than having to burden a young mind with the trials and tribulations of race in America. In fact, Charlottesville demonstrates we now live in a time where timidity and passivity towards these symbols can turn deadly.
Many claim these monuments are symbols of our history and taking them down is revisionism. However, if our desire is to remember history, why do confederate statues outnumber union ones 4:1 in Baltimore City, when the majority of our state’s soldiers fought for the union? Clearly this isn’t about our history.
Baltimore City is taking action to remove these symbols of hate, and we need this kind of leadership across our entire state, but that requires a governor with the courage to lead. As Governor, I’d work to remove all confederate monuments, beginning with the statue of Taney that sits right outside our state house in Annapolis.
While the Taney monument represents the worst of America and Maryland, it’s made of good metal that can be repurposed and cast of the same bronze in Frederick Douglass’ image just in time for the bicentennial of his birth in 2018.
A contemporary of Taney, Douglass fought for the rights of the enslaved, free blacks, women, and all Americans. He was a forward-looking patriot who chose to fight and advance our country. In fact, despite living in an era of slavery, where he met virulent racism regularly, Douglass saw the true heart of America, and what it could one day be. He said that America’s destiny was to be “the perfect national illustration of the unity and dignity of the human family that the world has ever seen.”
A man who could live through the worst of America and still see the best of it, a man who saw that we could one day make up for the moral weight of our transgressions and could become the America we have always claimed to be. This is the man that stands for the very best of what it means to be an American. Replacing Taney with Douglass keeps us true to our history, while setting the right example for our children in demonstrating that even in the most trying of times, we cannot forget who we are, nor seek power through the oppression of others.
I have called on Governor Larry Hogan to stop equivocating and begin working immediately to remove confederate monuments, beginning with the Taney statue outside of the state house. We have seen the message we send to terrorist groups when we do not forcefully and clearly denounce hate in all forms. So far, when asked about these monuments, the Governor has said removing them would be “political correctness run amok”. The Governor doesn’t understand that removing these monuments is not about political correctness, rather it is about setting an example for our children and showing them that hate and bigotry in America will no longer be honored.
Charlottesville reminds us with great urgency, that we are not living in ordinary times – the same old approaches to bridging the racial divide in our country aren’t working. We can no longer accept half measures.
There are forces at work who want to take our country backward and we must realize that the struggle for civil rights is never-ending.
It is only by confronting the truth of why these statues are here to begin with that we can begin to heal a nation still struggling with the demons of its past.
If you’d like to see the Taney monument replaced with one of Frederick Douglass please sign this petition at:
Ben Jealous is a candidate for Governor of Maryland, former president and CEO of the NAACP, former President & Executive Director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (the Black Press), an educator, investor and community organizer.