MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Over the weekend in Charlottesville, Va., a few dozen members of the Ku Klux Klan were faced down by about 1,000 counter-protesters. The KKK had come to demonstrate against the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Now, this clash comes almost two years to the day after South Carolina took down the Confederate flag over its statehouse. And that followed the murders of nine people at a historically black church in Charleston by a white supremacist who had been photographed posing with the Confederate flag. Cities across the south and beyond have been grappling with what to do with their Confederate symbols, as NPR's Sarah McCammon reports.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: In many cities, statues honoring Confederate leaders and generals and soldiers killed in the Civil War have stood for decades or longer. Calls to remove them - and with them, reminders of racism and slavery - are sparking debates about identity and history in communities from Tampa to St. Louis.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Take it down. Take it down...
MCCAMMON: Some of the most contentious protests have taken place in New Orleans, where four memorials came down earlier this year. That move was advocated by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, New Orleans's first white mayor in more than 30 years.
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MITCH LANDRIEU: This is a history we should never forget and one that we should never, ever again put on a pedestal to be revered.
MCCAMMON: For cities where Confederate history already rests on multiple pedestals, there's no formula for what to do next. In Richmond, Va., which was once one of the capitals of the Confederacy, the city's African-American mayor, Levar Stoney, recently created a commission charged with finding ways to contextualize several memorials that line Monument Avenue, a stately historic street downtown.
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LEVAR STONEY: Removing monuments doesn't change race relations in our city. I'm just as insulted by those statues as anyone else. But what I'm most insulted by is the fact that those statues currently stand up there without telling an ounce of the truth.
MCCAMMON: Stoney has suggested adding signs to explain the markers' history or new statues honoring other historical figures. Sometimes, protests over Civil War monuments take the form of a can of spray paint. In Norfolk, Va., several weeks ago, someone wrote the word shame in giant letters across a monument to the Confederate dead positioned prominently downtown. Rayla Young of Virginia Beach walked by as a city crew was cleaning off the paint. Young, who's African-American, said she's more or less resigned to the statue's presence.
RAYLA YOUNG: Just walk past it like I don't even see it. They...
MCCAMMON: Do you think it should be here?
YOUNG: It's hard to say whether it should or should not. Of course, it hurts, but, I mean, there's nothing that I can do to tell anybody to take it down. So...
MCCAMMON: Steve Turner, a white construction worker who'd come into town from North Carolina, was also passing by. He says Confederate symbols are part of American history and should be left alone.
STEVE TURNER: Well, I mean, everything's offensive nowadays. It doesn't matter what you do or what you say. It's still offensive.
MCCAMMON: The country is becoming increasingly diverse. And Turner believes that's causing problems and creating controversy.
TURNER: I hate to say it. But, you know, it's getting so bad, we are the minority now, you know?
MCCAMMON: You mean...
TURNER: White people are, you know? And they're - to say - since Obama took over, back then - that's what created all this crap right now.
MCCAMMON: Whatever cities do with their memorials to the Confederacy, the nation still faces deeper racial divides. Brandy Faulkner, a political science professor at Virginia Tech, says Obama's election fueled racial resentment among some people.
BRANDY FAULKNER: We like to think that we've made so much progress in this area, when, in fact, we haven't made very much at all.
MCCAMMON: Faulkner says removing Confederate monuments is a step in the right direction. But until the country has an honest conversation about its racial history, those actions alone won't solve the larger problem. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Norfolk, Va.
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