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Virginia judge takes action against Confederate statue; is Maryland’s judiciary willing to do the same? | COMMENTARY

The Talbot Boys statue pays tribute to county residents who sided with the Confederate Army during the Civil War. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun).
The Talbot Boys statue pays tribute to county residents who sided with the Confederate Army during the Civil War. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun). (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

Last month, a judge in Roanoke County, Virginia, without prompting, issued an administrative order on his own authority: Either a Confederate monument in front of a historic courthouse in the town of Salem must go, or the court itself must.

“The continued presence of the confederate monument, in its present location on Roanoke County property, and with its present content, obstructs the proper administration of justice,” Judge Charles N. Dorsey wrote. He then acknowledged that “the lesser hardship” of his two options is the removal of the statue, which Roanoke College has offered to pay for, and so, it should be done.

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“The Court further finds that any inconvenience in accomplishing this goal is small, compared to the rights involved in the administration of justice,” he wrote.

That 18-foot-tall statue, which had been installed in 1909 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, is a fond tribute to those who fought to preserve slavery, chiseled with the grateful words “Love Makes Memory Eternal” and, as critics have often pointed out, a warning to Virginians of the Jim Crow era that the “Lost Cause” lives on. What Black defendant or plaintiff could expect to get a fair shake with that in front of the courthouse?

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Judge Dorsey’s compelling argument, footnoted with historical facts and the personal experience of a native Southerner, ought to be replicated, word for word, in a letter to the Talbot County Council, which has so far refused to remove its own equivalent obstruction of justice: the “Talbot Boys” statue that sits on the courthouse green in Easton.

The Eastern Shore monument features an idealized image of a flag-clutching Rebel soldier staring off into the distance. It has stood on that spot since 1916, which is exactly around the time, as Judge Dorsey notes, that there was a major push in Southern states to strip African Americans of their rights through segregation and other discriminatory practices.

So, please spare us the nonsensical claim posed by some in Talbot County that removing the statue from such a prominent place on public land represents some sort of denial of history. It is nothing of the kind. History can be found a block away on the shelves of the Talbot County Free Library. This is a corruption of history, a glorification of soldiers who fought to preserve slavery. This is no harmless commemoration of the fallen. Statues of the era were commonly about maintaining white status, not providing some evenhanded vision of the American past. The statue makes no mention of how the war led to freedom for Black men and women enslaved and auctioned on this very same ground. Why do you suppose that is the case? It was only a decade ago that a statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who grew up in Talbot, was installed nearby, as if to shield the Talbot Boys from criticism.

In May, the local branch of the NAACP, the public defender’s office and others filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking removal of this 13-foot-tall symbol of white supremacy, this last Confederate monument standing on public land in Maryland. In June, the county struck back, filing a motion arguing that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the statue has done no harm, the plaintiffs lack standing and the statue’s continued presence amounts to a political question best sorted out by local government. In June and July, civil rights groups held protests in front of the statue, including a group bused from Annapolis, with still no sign that the county council has any plan to change its mind. The plaintiffs may ultimately prevail in their civil action yet, for now, the edifice endures.

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What a shameful mess.

On Aug. 11, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh belatedly joined the fray, issuing a statement calling for the statue to be removed by Talbot County and an end to the “protracted” litigation. The statue “is not simply a vestige of slavery and white supremacy from long ago, but a sign of enduring resistance to racial equality,” the statement notes, concluding that it’s “time for the Talbot Boys to go.”

We concur, though we have little hope for action from the council. Where, then, is the judge in Maryland’s legal community who is willing to show the initiative of Judge Dorsey, who operates in the heart of the Virginia Bible Belt and the shadow of the Confederacy’s capital, no less? We surely would not tolerate a “Whites Only” sign on any courthouse door or public drinking fountain in the post-civil rights era, let alone the 21st century. Keeping a statue on a courthouse green honoring those who fought to preserve slavery broadcasts the same message of inequality, hatred and separate standards of justice. It must not continue.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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