Opinion

Seeking a place for Durham’s Confederate monuments

Durham’s City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments and Memorials Committee Chairs Charmaine McKissick-Melton, left, and Robin Kirk, middle, present their committee’s recommendation on the future of the Confederate monument toppled in Durham in August of 2017 on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019 at the City-County Joint Committee Meeting.
Durham’s City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments and Memorials Committee Chairs Charmaine McKissick-Melton, left, and Robin Kirk, middle, present their committee’s recommendation on the future of the Confederate monument toppled in Durham in August of 2017 on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019 at the City-County Joint Committee Meeting. jwall@newsobserver.com

As co-chairs of the Durham City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments and Memorials, we are writing to emphatically state that we stand by our report and urge those interested in this issue to read it:

To be clear, our Committee never recommended that the base of Durham’s existing Confederate veterans memorial be moved to a predominately African-American cemetery. Never. We recommended that the base be incorporated into a new memorial that includes a section honoring Union veterans and a section honoring enslaved people, to date largely written out of our history.

When legally feasible, we said, the city and county could consider moving the new memorial to Maplewood or Beechwood cemeteries, since they are city-owned.

This new memorial, in other words, would honor the veteran dead of all races as well as the enslaved of that time. Modelled on Bennett Place’s Unity Monument, this new memorial would both recognize a deeply divisive time in our history, honor those so far written out of our story of the past, serve as a way to continue to educate future generations, and pave the way for new understandings of the past.

This is all in line with the values hundreds of Durham residents shared with us during our deliberations.

If the elected leaders who established our Committee believe Beechwood Cemetery is inappropriate — a valid opinion that merits discussion — then Maplewood Cemetery or another location may be a better choice. With equal passion, some may rightly oppose the relocation of a new memorial that includes African-American enslaved people and veterans to a predominately white cemetery.

That is a matter for civil, constructive discussion -- precisely the kind of deep dive we experienced as a Committee -- not wild accusations and the clickbait coverage that appeared in this newspaper. The tenor of the response of a few and this newspaper’s media coverage played precisely to the kind of divisive, confrontational clashes we worked hard to overcome.

Our community deserves better.

Our Committee was comprised of 12 members representing a diversity of ages, races and backgrounds. We spent over 8 months engaging with Durham residents in meetings, social media and through email and other means and spent uncounted hours as volunteers grappling with this thorny issue, all included in our final report.

In this process, the Durham community—with its diverse and sometimes opposing perspectives—came together again and again to discuss sensitive issues, listen to each other, and actually hear and learn from each other.

In particular, comparing our carefully crafted, open-ended recommendations to any goals or world view of Nazis is both preposterous and insulting to citizen volunteers. The newspaper apparently missed the fact that the majority of officials expressed admiration, appreciation, and support for our difficult work.

That the newspaper would fan the flames of a baseless smear with a banner headline is not good journalism but a scrounge for clicks that betrays the vital goal of fairly informing citizens.

We have different opinions, sometimes passionately held. But in Durham, as the members of our Committee learned to our great joy, mutual respect and civil debate are the best illumination for a way forward. Ultimately, it will be up to the citizens of Durham to decide what is best for the future.

Kirk teaches human rights at Duke University. McKissick-Melton teaches Mass Communications at North Carolina Central University.

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