Connecting state and local government leaders
There's little consensus on what to put up in place of Confederate monuments and other controversial political statues.
In Tennessee, they’d like a likeness of Dolly Parton. In Richmond, they want a monument to heavy metal. And in Cleveland, more than 3,000 people are hoping to immortalize Chef Boyardee.
As a statue, that is.
Those suggestions, submitted via Change.org petitions, are to replace statues and monuments that have been rejected as inappropriate in the weeks since George Floyd, a Black man, was killed in police custody in Minnesota.
The removal of Confederate statues and monuments has been a topic of frequent debates across the South since at least 2015, when white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black churchgoers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. But the issue has gained urgency during protests after Floyd's death, as demonstrators target them as symbols of slavery, white supremacy and segregation. In some cities, the movement has also spread to question the monuments to other historical figures, especially Christopher Columbus, due in part to his brutal treatment of the native people he encountered in the Caribbean.
Defenders of the statues have argued that removing them is an attempt to alter history, often suggesting that instead governments should add plaques that provide more context.
Multiple statues have come down in the past two months, some with city approval and others pulled down by protesters. But many others, including a six-story statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond and a bust of Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee’s state capitol, are, at least at for now, still standing.
Lawmakers and activists continue to call for their removal, but even in places where monuments have been taken down, there are few official plans or discussions to replace them.
Enter the petitions.
More than 69,000 people are hoping to replace Richmond’s statue of Robert E. Lee with a monument to the deceased frontman of the heavy metal band GWAR. The band, formed in Richmond in 1984, features a rotating lineup of artists and musicians dressed in elaborate costumes that play homage to the group’s science-fiction backstory. Its original lead singer Dave Brockie, who portrayed a character named Oderus Urungus, died of a heroin overdose in 2014.
“Robert E. Lee is a failed war general that supported a racist cause. For too long, the city of Richmond has been displaying statues of him and other loser civil war veterans,” the petition says. “We the scumdogs of the universe call on the city of Richmond to erect a statue of great local leader Oderus Urungus in its place. While Oderus comes from the planet Scumdogia, he called Richmond his home, working with the local art community and employing local artists and ladies of the night.”
In Cleveland, roughly 3,200 people have signed a petition to replace an existing Columbus statue with a likeness of Ettore Boiardi, an Italian immigrant who operated a restaurant in the city and canned and sold his popular pasta sauce, leading to the commercial brand Chef Boyardee.
“It's time for Cleveland to remove its statue to a genocidal sociopath with a bowl cut and erect a statue to an immigrant success story who enriched our community with his food and iconic mustache,” the petition says.
In Tennessee, Dolly Parton fans would like to see every single Confederate statue replaced with a likeness of the blonde singer. Her philanthropy—including a foundation that provides free books and scholarships to children—“has unquestionably changed the world for the better...and given more to this country and this state than those Confederate officers could ever have hoped to take away,” the petition says.
The idea isn’t unprecedented in Tennessee. Late last year, state Rep. Jeremy Faison, a Republican, floated Parton’s name as a potential replacement for the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
“How about getting a lady in there?" he told the Tennesseean, noting that seven of the capitol’s eight alcoves are filled with statues of white men. “My daughter is 16, and I would love for her to come into the capitol and see a lady up there...what’s wrong with someone like Dolly Parton being put in that alcove?”
Other state leaders have taken more concrete steps toward identifying replacements for ousted statues. Last month, Kentucky state Sen. Chris McDaniel pre-filed legislation to remove a statue of Jefferson Davis, best known for serving as president of the Confederacy for four years.
The bill also recommends that the statue be replaced with a likeness of Chief Petty Officer Carl Brashear, the first Black master diver and the first amputee diver in the history of the United States Navy. Brashear, a Kentucky native, was portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. in “Men of Honor,” a film adaptation of his life story.
"He embodies everything we want people to look up to in life," McDaniel told the River City News. "He was a career military person. He overcame adversity in every phase of his life: discrimination, disability, poverty. He served with honor and broke down barriers, and that is the kind of person that should be honored in the highest of places."
The Davis statue was removed two days after McDaniel’s proposal, approved 11 to 1 by the panel that oversees the state’s Capitol. Gov. Andy Beshear had also called for its removal, telling reporters it was a “symbol that divides us, and even if there are those that think it's a part of history, there should be a better place to put it in historic context.” The statue was moved to the Jefferson Davis Historic Site, located in Fairview, where Davis was born.
And should some of the removed statues find themselves without a permanent home, Newton Falls, Ohio, is happy to be of service. As of last week, the northeastern Ohio city has declared itself a "Statuary Sanctuary City," offering respite and a "location of honor" to some "statues rejected by other cities."
The proclamation, signed on July 4 by City Manager David Lynch, acknowledges that certain historical figures were "flawed in many ways," notes that many still deserve to be commemorated.
But not all statues are welcome, even in the statuary sanctuary, as Lynch emphasized to CNN he isn't interested in Confederate figures. The city's proclamation extends "general amnesty" only to statues of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, Patrick Henry, Francis Scott Key, Theodore Roosevelt and Christopher Columbus.
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
NEXT STORY: Coronavirus Fraudsters Keep Prosecutors Busy