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Editorial: Right healing touch needed to bridge divide
Debate over race, monuments can be fixed if leaders take measured steps
Gainesville resident Dwayne Lee, left, and Antonio Champion, center, have a discussion Aug. 19 during a protest about the Confederate monument in downtown Gainesville. - photo by David Barnes

As any owner of a home or vehicle knows, when something is broken, the longer you wait to get it fixed, the worse it becomes. That’s true if it’s a leaky roof, broken window, mysterious ping under the hood, or a split in a community.

The nation, state and region are at such a crossroads now with a divide that seems to be wider than ever, even if it often seems amplified by broadcast and social media to be worse than it is. Still, It’s time to get out the toolbox and go to work on it.

This chasm has been jarred open by several seismic jolts: The protests and aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, the ensuing debate over Confederate memorials and a growing sense that a nation that used to unite under one set of symbols and ideals is pulling farther apart. Whether it’s the dispute over historic symbols or football players kneeling for the national anthem, Americans are cleaving into two distinct camps.

This has been exacerbated by a president who teeters between scripted and reasoned speeches, off-the-cuff rally remarks and overnight tweets, sending mixed messages that leave many not knowing where he stands.

That leaves it to other leaders, and to the rest of us, to take deep breaths and a measured approach, listen to all sides carefully and respectfully, then decide how best to bring us together again.

This is the next step in deciding the fate of Confederate memorials around the U.S. Some have already come down as many decry what they call an attempt to erase history. Before they all are toppled like those of Lenin or Saddam Hussein, community leaders should sit quietly and listen to all sides before deciding their fate.

Last Sunday, we made the case that while the memorials invoke painful memories of slavery and segregation for many, they still can be used to teach us about that period in history with the appropriate context. Since then, many have weighed in with letters and comments offering their views. This is healthy; even when we disagree, we should try to see things from others’ perspective. We should concede it’s a complex issue that invokes strong emotions from a past that often provides equal parts pride and shame.

This doesn’t need to be a one-size-fits-all approach. For some, removal may be best, particularly on college campuses worried about the messages sent. For others, relocation to a historic site or museum may be best. For the rest, adding some context by including a full description of the war’s causes and effects would use them to teach current and future generations about the American holocaust that claimed more lives than all of the nation’s wars combined, and the decade of institutional segregation that followed. 

Whatever other factors may have been involved in the Civil War and its aftermath, there is no denying the influence of racial bigotry in the nation’s history and its wounds that have yet to heal.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, during a stop in Gainesville last week, agrees many monuments could remain in place but include the whole story of the Civil War, a compromise toward a truthful historic context. Yet he said in meeting people around the state, he found more reasoned reactions than what usually is seen on Facebook or cable TV.

“Most people might disagree on social issues, politics, but they agree they love their country,” Perdue said. “The extremes, the fringe elements, are dominating the dialogue. They create an uproar that distracts from solutions.”

It is easy to assume the loudest, shrillest voices on both extremes reflect the views of the vast majority, when the opposite is really true. We saw this last weekend during a protest at the Old Joe memorial in Gainesville, when opposing sides came together. Though the arguments were loud at times, they were mostly respectful and peaceful, and reflect the true nature of who we are.

In Georgia, these memorials are protected by law that can only be changed by the legislature. Lawmakers should begin that discussion next year and listen to and respect all sides.

Now Gov. Nathan Deal has an opportunity as well. His first step was appointing DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond to the Stone Mountain board of directors, giving that body its first African-American voice as it decides the fate of its Confederate memorials.

Monday, the governor will help dedicate a sculpture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Capitol grounds. It is perfect timing that amid the debate over a divisive period in history, the state is recognizing an Atlantan whose life’s work was aimed at righting a historic wrong.

Georgia and its capital city have a paradoxical history of race relations that reflect the nation’s struggle. Atlanta is home to both King and Lester Maddox; of a key battle that turned the Civil War and a birthplace of civil rights; where segregationists held sway in the Capitol for decades while, down the street, Ralph McGill supported tolerance and integration; and where generations of elected leaders fanned flames of hatred later brought under control by the likes of Carl Sanders, Ivan Allen and Andrew Young.

Deal has a chance to join their company and begin reuniting our state. He has made strides in his two terms, forging a strong alliance with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed that shows both men as pragmatic leaders more concerned with serving constituents than stirring up political dust storms.

We need leaders like Deal, Reed, Perdue and others close to home to set an example for how best to reconcile the intersection of prejudice and heritage that stand erect in town squares and government buildings. It doesn’t have to happen overnight, but if the right tone can be set, we can begin to bridge a gap that may grow wider down the road.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor at The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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