Following an only-in-Dallas hour-plus parade of public comments that saw comparisons made between Robert E. Lee and Roger Staubach amid an impassioned debate about the city’s Confederate monuments and its fraught racial history, the City Council voted 13-1 Wednesday in favor of the immediate removal of a statue of the Confederate general at the Oak Lawn park that bears his name.
Sandy Greyson was opposed, while Rickey Callahan, the most vocal opponent of the statue’s immediate teardown, declined to cast a vote. Both Greyson and Callahan called for the issue to be taken to voters in a referendum, arguing that the mayor’s commissioned task force, which was formed to evaluate what to do with the monuments, needed more time to work. The city attorney told council members that the earliest a referendum could be placed on the ballot would be November 2018. Callahan suggested as well that today’s vote might result in some “pushback” from voters on the November bond election that will pump millions into city-wide infrastructure projects, among other things. (Councilman Adam Medrano supported Callahan’s motion to postpone the vote, saying he too would like to see the issue brought up in a referendum, but ultimately voted for the resolution to remove the statue.)
The horsed Robert E. Lee statue will come down much sooner rather than later — there is currently a crane at Lee Park, dozens of Dallas police officers at the barricaded scene, and Caraway and Councilman Philip Kingston are on site — but the work of that task force, and “two months of historical soul searching,” lie ahead. The resolution adopted today also makes official a city policy opposing the public display of Confederate monuments, including one at Pioneer Park downtown, as well as the naming of parks and streets after Confederate figures. The path forward still includes two public meetings, and presentations by the task force and the Office of Cultural Affairs over the next couple months. The City Council will decide on Nov. 8 on the renaming of any streets and parks, and on the treatment of the rest of the city’s Confederate monuments.
Even getting to this point required months of political wrangling, but events in Charlotesville, where violence ensued at a white supremacist rally at that city’s own Confederate monument, and the support of Dallas’ four black council members for both the task force and the immediate removal of the Lee Park statue here, seemed to tip the scales for today’s vote.
City Manager T.C. Broadnax told council members that removing and storing the Lee Park statue would cost about $450,000 in excess revenue from the city. Mayor Mike Rawlings intimated that part of the task force’s goal will be to explore how private money could pay for the statue’s removal. Bravo Walker, a sculptor and member of the task force, told the City Council that minutes before the meeting a “private person” had expressed interest in placing the statue on private property, and offered to pay for it. (Rawlings: “We’ll talk later.”) A man who identified himself as the great-great-grandson of Lee said his family was prepared to buy the statue from the city.
The varying thoughts of the roughly 40 residents who addressed the council before Wednesday’s vote demonstrated the divide in public opinion over what to do with the Confederate monuments.
Some of the more extreme examples, which tend to come up at this sort of thing, included a reference to a Lee Harvey Oswald mural in the Bishop Arts District and the specter of neo-Marxists pursuing insidious aims. As for the speaker who compared the leadership styles of Robert E. Lee and famed Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, District 13 Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates later refuted the notion that her father would have sympathized with the Confederate general, calling the comparison “somewhat offensive.”
“I was taught as a very young girl that you treat everyone equally,” she said, relating a story about Roger Staubach being outraged by a racist incident he witnessed in the South as a young man.
More public comments reflected a debate that’s been unfolding at protests and in online comment sections, with talk of preserving history butting against the view of Confederate monuments as “totems” for white supremacy and symbols of oppression.
Former U.S. Rep. Allen West, an outspoken conservative and the former director of the recently shuttered Dallas-based think-tank known as the National Center for Policy Analysis, discounted the symbolic weight of the statues and called for them to stay.
“We don’t need to focus on statues, we need to focus on where we’re going as a nation,” he said.
The Rev. Michael Waters, a leader in the fight to tear down the statues, said this was a chance for Dallas to atone for its brutal, racist past and set itself “on a bright new course.”
Several council members also made reference to racism past and present, with Tennell Atkins imploring others to walk in his shoes as a 61-year-old black man, and to address the deeper problems behind the city’s Confederate monuments. The first step is removing the statue, he said.
“We can figure out what we’re going to do with it in the future,” Atkins said.
Councilman Dwaine Caraway asked that three members of a youth commission be added to the task force.
“It is their future, that they must sit at the table,” he said.
Rawlings said that the city will be a better place tomorrow, with the Robert E. Lee statue taken down.
Then it’s on to other issues, including a potential new name for Lee Park. Even Callahan, who vigorously opposed removing the statue today, suggested renaming it “Freedom Park,” calling for the Lee statue to remain while adding monuments for civil rights leaders.
Councilman Kevin Felder had another idea, pulling from the park’s history before the Lee statue was dedicated in 1936: Change its name back to Oak Lawn Park.