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Nyack Sketch Log: Monumental Struggle Over Symbols in America

by Bill Batson

Unending battles over Confederate flags, monuments, and the National Anthem suggest that the issues contested in the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement remain unresolved. A polarized nation expressed its allegiance to different historic narratives, and even different flags, during this last year.

Last summer, demonstrations organized to protest the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota, demanded, and, on occasion, facilitated the dismantling of monuments to the Confederacy. By winter, a more furious season of discontent over symbols from our history descended on Washington, DC, when insurrectionists invaded the Capitol, flying the Confederate flag.

Global Citizen Circle

Global Citizens Circle was founded as New England Circle in 1974 in the aftermath of a turbulent decade of assassinations, wars, racial tension, and government upheaval as a way of gathering concerned people of diverse backgrounds and opinions to address critical issues of our time. Its original mission remains: “to foster diversity, discussion, and constructive change in ourselves, our nation, and our world.” Past discussion leaders include Nelson Mandela, Gloria Steinem, Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, Cornel West, Wilma Mankiller and Martin Luther King, III. Co-hosted by Global Citizens Circle, Social Change Initiative & Southern New Hampshire University, Monumental Struggles: The power to unite or divide will be presented on Zoom on Wednesday, February 24th at 10 – 11:30a EST. Click here to register.

On Wednesday, February, 24, I will introduce a panel discussion for the Global Citizen Circle, entitled Monumental Struggles. It explores the placement of monuments that celebrate a narrative of American history and the removal of monuments that commemorate racist figures that divide.

Panelists for this Zoom-based discussion include Mitch Landrieu, whose tenure as Mayor of New Orleans was punctuated by his decision to remove confederate monuments from public spaces; Dr. Tracyann Williams; and Dr. Craig Stutman, representatives of the Toni Morrison Bench by the Road initiative, a project dedicated to erecting public monuments that acknowledge the African diaspora; and Imari Paris Jeffries, Executive Director of KingBoston, a non profit that is creating a living memorial honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. The panel will be moderated by Dr. Ken Nivison, Interim Dean for Southern New Hampshire University’s School of Arts and Sciences. You can find a link to attend here.

Mitch Landrieu is the author of the New York Times best-selling book, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History. On June 24, 2015, during a racial reconciliation gathering the he organized, Landrieu announced the de-commissioning of the iconic statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The decision came a week after the slaying of 9 Black people in an historic Charleston, S.C. church at the hands of Dylann Roof, a self-avowed white supremacist. “Symbols really do matter. Symbols should reflect who we really are as a people,” Landrieu said at the event. “We have never been a culture, in essence, that revered war rather than peace, division rather than unity.”

Mayor Mitch Landrieu

Dr. Stutman and Dr. Williams are 2 of the leaders who are continuing Toni Morrison’s Bench by the Road initiative. The project was inspired by an answer Morrison gave to an interviewer in 1989 about the reason she wrote her novel Beloved:

“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book had to” (The World, 1989).

Bench by the Road unveiling, Nyack, 2015

Associate Professor of History and Public Policy at Delaware Valley University, Stutman chairs the Bench by the Road project.  Along with Dr. Williams and a distinguished board of scholars, Stutman has helped erect 25 monuments in the form of a benches that honor the “presence or absence of slaves” and their descendants. Benches have been installed in Charleston, SC, Walden, Mass, and Harlem, NYC. In May, 2015, a bench to abolitionist and entrepreneur Cynthia Hesdra was unveiled in Nyack, with Ms. Morrison speaking at the dedication. It was one of her last public appearances.

In Boston, Massachusetts, Imari Harris directs King Boston, a privately funded non-profit working to create a living memorial and programs honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. Boston is where the Kings met. They both arrived in 1951–Martin to study for his doctorate at Boston University’s School of Theology, and Coretta for a fellowship in voice at the New England Conservatory of Music. Organizers hope that the dedication of the monument and companion programs will help confront and reverse lingering racial discord in the city. A study conducted for a 2017 Boston Globe Spotlight series found Black Americans ranked Boston as the “least welcoming” to people of color.

America stands at a crossroads, as it has many times before. One path leads to the moral wreckage of racist violence typified by the killing of George Floyd and the desecration of the Capitol, the other to a broad and hopeful highway with community painted murals proclaiming Black Lives Matter. All 4 of the panelists participating in the Monumental Struggles Global Citizen Circle discussion believe that the presence or absence of public commemorations can lead the country toward a more perfect union.

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: Monumental Struggle Over Symbols in America” © 2021 Bill Batson.

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