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Dallas Wavers On Confederate Memorial


Leaders of Dallas, Texas, are not sure just how far they want to go in tearing down a Confederate monument. The city got rid of its statue of Robert E. Lee. That seemed automatic after the protest over a Lee statue in Virginia ended with one person killed. But what remains in Dallas is a much larger memorial. The city has wavered over what to do with it, and some of the wavering is among African-American lawmakers. NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Dallas' Confederate monument soars more than 50 feet into the year with a mustached Johnny Reb atop, facing south, of course. At each corner of the base are the four heroes of the lost cause.

JOHN FULLINWIDER: Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. We have Robert E. Lee. We have General Albert Sidney Johnston, and we have General Stonewall Jackson.

GOODWYN: John Fullinwider is a medical librarian and, more to the point, a Dallas activist and organizer who's been fighting for years to get the city to take its Confederate memorials down.

FULLINWIDER: This is not a history lesson. This is a celebration of white supremacy that we are demanding be taken down.

GOODWYN: Last August, that seemed almost a certainty after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. A month later, the Dallas City Council voted to take down a prominent statue of Robert E. Lee astride his horse. And so Lee and Traveller were carted away. But as the months passed, enthusiasm for further action began to wane. At a contentious public hearing, the mayor and council were attacked as erasers of history and racist against whites. But what was surprising to many was that the 9-6 margin to keep the city's main Confederate memorial up, at least for now, came from three out of the four black city councilmen. Dwaine Caraway, the mayor pro tem and key African-American council leader, explains why they didn't vote to take down the memorial.

DWAINE CARAWAY: If we had voted that way, then we would lose the game. Yes, the statue would be gone, but what would be there?

GOODWYN: Tennell Atkins, another prominent black city councilman, who actually brought the motion to defer taking the memorial down, explained, everyone in America is watching the city of Dallas and asking, are we doing the right thing? The third African-American councilman, Casey Thomas, said afterward, he wanted a second task force to study whether the memorial should be removed. With their three votes, Thomas, Atkins and Caraway could've brought the Confederate memorial down immediately. So why didn't they? Caraway explains.

CARAWAY: The statues, all of that is coming down. But do you have to take down the whole thing? Do we have to start rebuilding from ground up?

GOODWYN: What Caraway wants is not completely clear. He would like the Confederate statues gone but wants to keep the base and perhaps put statues of civil rights icons. But his vote, along with Atkins' and Thomas', has drawn scorn from some of Dallas' most respected black leaders.

FREDERICK HAYNES III: No, we were all stunned. We didn't see this coming. And a compromise with white supremacy is a compromise with evil.

GOODWYN: Reverend Frederick Haynes III has been the leader of Friendship-West Baptist Church, with more than 12,000 members, for 35 years. The influential pastor was named to the Confederate monuments task force to advise the city. Haynes is flabbergasted that three of the four black city councilmen voted to keep the memorial up, and he's wary of their explanation that the Confederate statues will come down someday.

HAYNES III: The history of Dallas - that I thought we were getting over - of compromising with people who want to uphold white supremacy - that's been Dallas' history. And as far as I'm concerned, it's plantation politics.

GOODWYN: The dominant political player seems to be Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings. Rawlings is a moderate, white Southern Democrat who really wants to try to work out a compromise that would keep the Confederate memorial in place while still mollifying anti-Confederate liberals. The mayor readily acknowledges the city's Confederate memorial is a monument to white supremacy, but instead of tearing it down, he wants to make it into a teaching moment, add some sort of historical context that could theoretically balance it all out.

MIKE RAWLINGS: We have an opportunity right here to do something that I think everybody in the city of Dallas could come and see and make us, as a city, heal. I don't know what it is yet, but I sure am not interested in kind of wiping the slate clean of everything and destroying something that's 122 years old.

GOODWYN: The mayor says he wants to think through all of the options, and it's apparent he swayed three of the city's black city councilmen to his thinking. But what of the one Dallas African-American councilman who refused to go along? Kevin Felder says he grew up in Gary, Ind., not Dallas, Texas. He shakes his head in aggravation at his black colleagues' votes and their explanations as to why the statue shouldn't come down right now.

KEVIN FELDER: I'm a black man in America, and those Confederate statues are an affront to me and to my culture. The civil rights movement bypassed this city. It didn't bypass the city I was born and raised in.

GOODWYN: The conflict over the memorial reveals a city at a political crossroads. As it vies for Amazon's second headquarters and reaches for a more progressive vision of itself, Dallas grapples to cut the cords to its white supremacist past. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.