Our View: Statue move is a good effort, even if it’s just symbolic

Our View: Statue move is a good effort, even if it’s just symbolic

(Photo/Chris Teale)

Symbols mean different things to different people, and their interpretation can vary across cultures. Those meanings often also change over time.

To Christians, the cross represents not just Christianity, but the very prism through which they view the world. For Jews, the Star of David symbolizes not just religious beliefs, but their ethnic and cultural heritage. The personal meaning these symbols hold would not be the same for nonbelievers or people of different faiths.

The OK sign of a circle and three upraised fingers has a vastly different meaning in parts of Europe than it does in the United States. What we now call the peace sign was once used by Allied countries during World War II as part of the “V for Victory” campaign.

So it is with symbols of the Confederacy. Someone from Mars might view the Confederate battle flag as simply an interesting design. But of course, the flag’s real meaning is not in how it looks, but in what it rep- resents to different people.

To many, particularly black Americans, the Confederate flag will never mean anything but slavery and racism. Others claim it represents pride in their Southern heritage and defiance of political correctness and government control.
The fatal shootings last year in Charleston, S.C. of nine black churchgoers allegedly by an apparent white supremacist, who had frequently posed with the Confederate flag, prompted a nationwide reassessment of Confederate symbols. The flag was removed from state buildings in South Carolina and elsewhere.

In Alexandria, city council voted to cease flying the flag on Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day and set up a task force to consider three other items: removing the name of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from U.S. Route 1, whether to rename streets in Alexandria that bear the names of Confederate military leaders, and whether to move the “Appomattox” statue from its location in the intersection of Prince and South Washington streets.

At Saturday’s public hearing, council followed the task force recommendations on two of the three items. It heeded the group’s advice in voting to rename Jefferson Davis Highway and eschewing sweeping street name changes. Street names still can be reconsidered on a case-by-case basis using current city processes.

But council veered from the task force’s recommendation when it voted to request permission from the Virginia General Assembly to move the statue of a southern-facing Confederate soldier out of the intersection and onto the nearby Lyceum property.

Different sorts of symbolism swirl around this decision. In the first place, the statue can’t be moved without state approval, which the city seems unlikely to receive. Inaction in Richmond would make this vote a purely symbolic gesture.

Second, council voted to move the statue only about 20 feet, not to destroy or hide it. Although last month we endorsed the task force’s recommendation not to move the statue, we feel this is a good idea.

More people will be able to examine the weary soldier up close from this vantage point than in the middle of busy South Washington Street. And it would allow for better surrounding elements to convey the context of the statue.

The vote also conveyed important symbolism insofar as it expressed a desire to move the Confederate soldier from his perceived place of honor in the middle of the roadway, much like moving a dinner guest from the right side of the host to a less noteworthy spot down the table.

Before public discussion began on Saturday, Mayor Allison Silberberg called on speakers to respect the broad spectrum of views on this topic and to remain civil, and for the most part they did. We now think it is time to move on from this divisive issue from our past and focus on the present.