WASHINGTON — Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum is pushing the federal government to get rid of confederate statues and memorials in national parks — and she’s gaining some traction this year as opposition to the public display of confederate symbols grows.
McCollum, who leads the House subcommittee that oversees spending for the Interior Department, included language in the agency’s fiscal 2021 spending bill that would require the National Park Service to remove from public view all confederate statues, monuments and plaques.
If passed into law, the requirement could be a monumental task for parks officials. The agency does not have a register of all of its confederate commemorative works. But at Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pa., alone, there are more than 1,300 monuments, markers and plaques that commemorate those who fought and died there.
The bill language is a victory for McCollum, who has been working on this issue for years. She made a similar attempt five years ago to block the sale of confederate flags in national parks. That effort ultimately failed, though the Department of Veterans Affairs later moved to bar confederate flag imagery from flagpoles at national cemeteries on Memorial Day or confederate Memorial Day.
McCollum said she sees an opportunity this year to revisit the issue, in light of the ongoing national discourse about racism.
“I am committed, as a citizen and as a person who has taught social studies and as a member of Congress, to help our country confront the legacy of racism,” McCollum said in an interview with the Minnesota Reformer. “I have an opportunity now, and I worked with like-minded members of Congress to require the Park Service to remove confederate commemorative works.”
The House approved the measure in July, as part of a wide-ranging spending bill called a “mini-bus” because it includes four different spending bills to fund the Interior, State, Veterans Affairs and Agriculture departments. It passed on a party-line vote without any debate of the confederate monuments issue.
The White House, however, in its “Statement of Administration Policy” on the measure said it “strongly objects” to the confederate monuments language, calling it a “drive to edit history.”
McCollum, who represents St. Paul, has served in Congress for 19 years but was a high school social studies teacher before she began her career in politics. She says that growing up during the civil rights movement and her time spent teaching social studies shaped her views and made this an important issue for her.
“We have to be mindful of the fact that what the confederate flag is used for is intimidation and fear and to say ‘You are not welcome here,’” McCollum said.
Protests across the country since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd have highlighted racial injustice and police brutality, and some protesters topped monuments. President Donald Trump has remained resolute in his support of monuments and memorials. An executive order in June called for protection of monuments and prosecution of anyone who defaces them.
For the McCollum provision to make it into law, it will have to survive negotiations with the Senate. In 2015, a group of Republicans threatened to oppose the entire Interior Department spending bill if it included a confederate flag amendment — leading to the removal of the rider. But McCollum says the tides have changed and that she has not yet heard from any colleagues who object to the provision.
“I am going to go into negotiations with the Senate and going to defend the language, and I daresay the United States Senate should not want the National Park Service or public lands to be used in a way that promotes the legacy of racial discrimination and hate, that causes intimidation and fear with our fellow citizens,” McCollum said.
The Senate has not moved on any of its individual spending bills. Lawmakers will likely work on a stopgap “continuing resolution” next month, before current funding expires Oct. 1.
‘A moment of reckoning’
The first confederate memorials were erected in cemeteries and communities after the Civil War, many of them as a replacement gravestones for soldiers who never came home.
But by the late 19th century, local and federal authorities in the Jim Crow South started to commission monuments in town squares and public meeting places. Those monuments, with triumphant Roman architecture, reinforced a “Lost Cause” mythology of heroism of the confederate cause, according to Sarah Beetham, an art history professor who has studied and published on confederate monuments.
Even more confederate monuments were erected during the 1960s, when the centennial of the Civil War coincided with the civil rights movement.
“Many of them were very much supporting a white supremacist message,” said Beetham, an assistant professor and chair of liberal arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
This summer has seen a growing push in Congress and across the United States to re-examine and remove some of those monuments.
“Really this is a moment of reckoning that has caused people to challenge their long held beliefs and disbeliefs,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has an ongoing project to catalog confederate monuments.
There are more than 700 confederate statues and monuments across the United States— most of them in the South. A wave of opposition grew in 2015, after white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine Black Americans at a historically Black church in Charleston, SC.
From 2015 to 2019, 114 confederate symbols were removed across the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. This summer, 52 more monuments have been removed.
“I think people, including elected officials, are coming to recognize that these are in fact symbols of hate and representative of anti-Black racism,” said Brooks. “The fact that they moved on this pretty quickly is encouraging.”
Within the halls of Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in June ordered the removal of confederate portraits and 11 confederate statues from the Capitol. There was also a bipartisan push to rename 10 military installations currently named after confederate generals.
The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing last month on three bills that take aim at confederate statues. One proposal from Virginia Rep. Don McEachin would require federal agencies to inventory all statues and other confederate memorabilia they have in their possession. And Maryland Rep. Anthony Brown has a bill that would remove the controversial Robert E. Lee statue at the Antietam National Battlefield, a target for vandalism this summer.
Nationwide, polling shows the tide of public opinion turning against confederate statues. A Quinnipiac University poll in June found that 52 percent of voters support removing confederate statues from public spaces and 44 percent oppose it.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s nationwide public mapping project for confederate monuments does not identify any in Minnesota —the first state to send soldiers to support the Union in the Civil War. The Minnesota Historical Society has several confederate flags that were confiscated or captured in battle, but it does not usually publicly display them.
McCollum’s far-reaching appropriations rider could change the landscape at some national battlefields. It requires the Park Service to remove from public view all “confederate commemorative works” — monuments, statues and plaques — within 180 days.
An Appropriations Committee staffer said the Park Service could remove statues or build a temporary plywood box around them while undertaking a larger process to decide their fate.
The bill also bans the Park Service from using funds to purchase or display the confederate flag except in “specific circumstances where the flags provide historical context.”
“This is not about erasing anybody’s history,” McCollum said. “At Gettysburg, the confederate flag will be present, because that is a part of history. But we need to confront the truth of our history in the federal domain and on our public lands.”
The Park Service has been consistent in defending these monuments.
“The NPS preserves these and other memorials, often as features of a historic landscape, and offers interpretive context for the benefit of visitors,” the agency said in a statement.
The Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides — which trains guides as historical interpreters for tours of Gettysburg and other battlefields — has also come out against the provision. The guides often use the statues to tell the stories of what happened at their sites.