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National

Rethinking Controversial Monuments

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Confederate monuments have been coming down around the country. Just yesterday, workmen removed one from Kansas City. But as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, it's not just Confederate markers that are under scrutiny now.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The fight over Confederate monuments got Bill Savage thinking about his own hometown.

BILL SAVAGE: And I thought to myself, geez, what does Chicago got that's like that? And then instantly, within a fraction of a second, I'm like, well, we don't have any Confederate generals, but we've got Italo Balbo's souvenir.

MORRIS: Savage is talking about an ancient Roman column near Soldier Field honoring Balbo. Balbo was a daring Italian pilot who enjoyed a hero's welcome in Chicago after landing a squadron of seaplanes there for the World's Fair in 1933. The monument was a gift from fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Fascist monument's got to go. Hey, hey. Ho, ho.

MORRIS: Protesting at the monument this week, Patrick McWilliams says he wants the city to take it down and to rename Balbo Drive.

PATRICK MCWILLIAMS: We think these monuments, similar to the Confederate monuments, are part and parcel of the same movement of white supremacy within America. And they all need to come down.

MORRIS: Some in Chicago argue that Balbo's best remembered as a pioneering aviator, not the brutal fascist he was, as well. But the very existence of the monument came as a shock to protester Lucia Blanchet.

LUCIA BLANCHET: I mean, I think a lot of people are saying, like, I didn't even know it was there. I didn't know it was there, either. But it is there.

MORRIS: People are discovering new objections to old monuments from coast to coast. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has ordered a 90-day review of all public monuments, looking for symbols of hate. In San Francisco, petitioners want to remove a historic statue near City Hall, where a languid Native American slumps at the feet of a Spanish cowboy and a priest.

MARK ELLIOTT: These particular monuments have become toxic to a lot of people.

MORRIS: Mark Elliott, who teaches history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, says that with white supremacists very visibly on the rise, sensitivity to oppressive symbolism is running high and that once-benign-seeming monuments can take on a sinister patina.

ELLIOTT: Whereas they were tolerable before, now, all of the sudden, this is a way to fight back in this very divisive moment that we're living through.

MORRIS: And some people are attacking monuments directly.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Evolution as humans requires tearing down monuments to destructive forces and tearing down systems that maintain them.

MORRIS: This YouTube video shows a man taking a sledgehammer to the base of America's oldest monument to Christopher Columbus in Baltimore this week.

KEVIN CAIRA: Christopher Columbus monuments across the country are being vandalized - and wrongfully. We need to just step back a bit, take a deep breath.

MORRIS: Kevin Caira, who's president of the Sons of Italy's Commission on Social Justice, agrees that Confederate statues should come down. But he says the debate over Columbus as an attempt to erase history. While Columbus was brutal to Native Americans, Caira says he's still an important historic figure and that it's unfair to judge him by current standards.

CAIRA: It was 525 years ago that he sailed to the Americas. And a lot of people want to impose the 21st century law to the 15th century person.

MORRIS: Baltimore took down four Confederate statues recently. But it's got no plans to remove the Columbus monument. It's just protecting it for now. In the meantime, the number of monuments coming under fresh scrutiny is rising as Americans struggle to agree on the shared values they want their monuments to reflect. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURA VEIRS'S "TEN BRIDGES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.