The killing of nine African-American congregants at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015 by a racist terrorist (I'll use that term even if the Director of the FBI won't do so) has triggered debate over a multitude of issues related to the crime, including the issues of gun control and what cultural forces could have influenced the man who perpetrated this terrible act. On that latter point, the continuing usage of Confederate iconography by Southern state governmental agencies and the message such iconography projects is one of the topics that has re-entered public discussion.
While much of the attention has rightfully, given its proximity to the attack on the church, been focused on the flying of the Confederate Battle Flag at the Capitol in South Carolina, that isn't the only place where the display of Confederate symbols on state property has come to the forefront of conversation. At the University of Texas (UT for short), there has been debate for years over the existence of a statue of Jefferson Davis, the disgraced president of the Confederacy, in a prominent location on the UT campus. The statue was placed on the UT campus after the First World War, ostensibly to symbolize national unity.
Needless to say, a statue of Jefferson Davis doesn't symbolize national unity now, if it ever did. Earlier this year, the UT Student Government asked the new president of UT, Dr. Greg Fenves, to have the statue removed. The UT Student Government also has placed a petition up at change.org asking for support for such removal.
The evil events of June 17 have increased the level of attention to the Jefferson Davis statue controversy at UT. On Twitter, the hashtag #NoDavisOnCampus started trending heavily during the weekend of June 20 and the petition has drawn support from UT alumni and non-alumni, including Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro.
One of the people who has been actively working to help UT student leaders with getting the word out on the subject is Washington DC attorney Brian Stansbury, a UT alum (and full disclosure, a friend of this author) who has promoted the petition on social media. When asked why he thought it was important for the Jefferson Davis statue matter to be addressed now, he said, "I want this statue to be removed, because I believe that black lives matter. Forcing African American college students, or anyone else for that matter, to learn in the shadow of Jefferson Davis is yet another example of ubiquitous institutional racism, and it is wrong. UT students of all backgrounds have been fighting to remove this statue for years, and as a UT alum, I merely want to amplify their voices."
One shouldn't have any illusions here. Removal of a statue won't end racism at UT or anywhere else. But symbols matter because, as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, symbols embody societal imagination. They help set the limits of what's acceptable discourse and what our cultural expectations are and should be. We can't change the past, but we can certainly change how we commemorate it and that will influence the future. For those reasons, I'd say that removing the Jefferson Davis statue from one of America's great public universities is something worth doing. And if you agree, please sign the petition.