Statue task force was doomed from the start

Published 6:33 pm Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Task forces, advisory groups, study groups — call them what you will, they sometimes have a place in deciding public policy.

Complex tax issues, school placement and design and a few other decisions of importance to the public lend themselves to discussions by interested and knowledgeable parties outside the relevant governing bodies.

All too often, however, citizens’ groups are used to dampen public criticism for decisions that are, of nature, purely political and are guaranteed to be controversial. That’s the case with the courthouse Confederate Monument and the “Task Force” named by the Board of Supervisors to make recommendations as to its future.

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Whether the Confederate statue will continue to dominate the Isle of Wight Courthouse skyline for decades to come is a political decision, and whatever that decision, it is guaranteed to upset a sizable portion of the county’s residents.

People named to the statue task force by the Board of Supervisors appear to have been chosen because they have a personal interest in the future of the monument. They have expressed opinions — strong opinions — concerning the statue’s past and future and appear to have been selected for the group because they did.

It was a formula guaranteed to accomplish little. Those who believe the statue should be removed will continue to hold that view, and those who believe it should remain in place will as well.

The statue debate grew out of the Black Lives Matter movement and has been repeated across the nation. BLM has become the civil rights movement of the 21st century, and it has raised uncomfortable debates over everything from police interaction with people of color to the memorials we choose to place in our public square.

And that’s where Confederate statues come into play. Statue supporters maintain steadfastly the statues are innocent memorials to honor Southerners who died during the Civil War — nothing more. They maintain that those who want to remove monuments to the Confederacy are trying to rewrite history.

They’re wrong. The rewriting of Southern history took place during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when textbooks were written memorializing the glory of the “Lost Cause” and the benevolence of the slave industry it tried unsuccessfully to perpetuate. Those textbooks remained in classrooms throughout the South well into the 1960s, indoctrinating generation after generation of children.

And the statues were part and parcel of that message. Not coincidentally, most of them were erected during the early 1900s alongside legislation that took voting rights away from blacks and established a rigidly segregated society.

The statues were intentionally placed in front of courthouses on tall pedestals where “Johnny Reb” in one form or another could look down about the citizenry, ever ready to protect “Old South” standards, i.e., the standards established in law during what we know as the Jim Crow era.

A lot has been made of “contextualizing” the statue, explaining its place in history. I can’t imagine signage that could properly place Isle of Wight’s statue in the appropriate context of history.

But whatever is done, it is a task for the Board of Supervisors to make the decision. Its five members asked voters to entrust county policy decisions to them. Now, they need to make one.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is