It’s time to go beyond destroying statues to building new ones

Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a senior political analyst at CNN. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

The righteous fury to tear down Confederate monuments has begun to stray in recent days toward a more arguably indiscriminate toppling of statues, ranging from President Ulysses S. Grant to St. Junipero Serra to George Washington and the removal of a statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front of the American Museum of Natural History.

John Avlon

We still have a lot of work to do to achieve a full and fair vision of American history. That’s why we should move the national conversation from destruction to construction, from tearing down to building. It’s time to embrace a new public works project to build new statues – not simply to replace the old, but to broaden Americans’ consciousness of the crucial and defining role that Americans of diverse backgrounds, particularly African Americans, have played in our history.

The following are suggestions to begin expanding our national conversation toward the more inclusive – and therefore more accurate – telling of American history. No list could be definitive. But this one is intended to serve as both the start of a conversation and a reminder of how deep and rich American history really is. We cannot learn the lessons of history by simply erasing it.

There are many statues to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass – but I’d argue there can never be too many. The same could be said for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended school segregation. One of the only statues to him stood on the grounds of the Lawyers Mall in Annapolis, but it is currently in storage to make way for new construction. It should be put back in a prominent place, in the vicinity of the Supreme Court. Likewise, we should build statues to Ambassador Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win a Nobel Peace Prize back in 1950 – one should be standing proudly near the United Nations and another in his hometown of Los Angeles.

In Charleston, South Carolina, where a statue of John C. Calhoun has just been removed, there should be erected a statue of Congressman Robert Smalls on the Battery off Charleston Bay, where this former slave commandeered a Confederate gunboat and parlayed his freedom into a pioneering role in Congress. He would go on to build the South Carolina Republican Party, and buy the house of the man who had owned him as a slave.

We should build statues to Hiram Revels, the first African American Senator elected after the Civil War, who took the Mississippi seat formerly occupied by Confederate president Jefferson Davis.

There’s no statue to the first Mexican American US Senator, Octaviano Larrazolo, who also served as the governor of New Mexico more than 100 years ago. There is also no statue built to honor Ed Brooke, the first African American elected to the Senate since reconstruction as a Republican from Massachusetts in 1966. Thankfully, there is a monument being built to Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress.

We should build more statues towards the heroes of the underground railroad, like Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman. We could start making historic amends by building a collective statue to the 25 African American Medal of Honor winners from the Civil War. Their heroism helped change our nation. So did Crispus Attucks, a biracial man who was the first American killed in the Boston Massacre at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

We should honor the service and sacrifice of the Harlem Hellfighters, the black regiment that saw more combat in World War I than any other American unit – and the Japanese-American 442nd, which fought in Italy during World War II, while many of their families were held in internment camps. Among their ranks was the first Japanese-American US Senator Daniel Inouye.

In the arena of civil rights, we should build monuments to key figures less well known than Dr. King – like Bayard Rustin and Medgar Evers, labor organizers like Cesar Chavez and crusaders like Ida B. Wells and Rosa Parks. It’s good news that a statue is being built in Grand Central Terminal to honor Elizabeth Jennings, the Rosa Parks of her time, who helped desegregate public transportation in New York City (and was represented in her case by future US President Chester A. Arthur). In Mississippi, we should build a statue to Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman – three civil rights workers who were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Neshoba County in 1964. We should build a statue to Thomas Morris Chester, a pioneering and supremely talented African American journalist who worked on the front lines of the Civil War, as well as honor Mary Richards Demmings – often called Mary Elizabeth Bowser – a legendary but still mysterious figure who served as a Union spy, posing as a slave in the Confederate White House.

But the cultural life of our country is more than just politics. We should build more statues honoring great African American writers and thinkers. W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were the Malcom X and Martin Luther King of the early 1900’s, defining a path toward self-sufficiency and self-respect in the segregated South. There is no statue yet built to honor the genius of James Baldwin (the subject of a new book by Princeton professor Eddie Glaude Jr.).

We should have statues honoring Zora Neale Hurston in her native Florida, Ralph Ellison in his native Oklahoma, Langston Hughes near his home in Harlem, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison at Princeton and Maya Angelou in San Francisco, where a statue has been the subject of long debate due to a lack of consensus on its design.

We should also build more statues to the men and women who developed the great American art form of jazz, including Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Tito Puente and Sarah Vaughan. In sports, there should be more statues to figures like Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente (who have been honored by Major League Baseball with a day and an award in their names, respectively) and tennis great Arthur Ashe. In the arts, there should be statues to photographer Gordon Parks and painter Jean-Michel Basquiat.

By honoring these and other great Americans in appropriate places, we can begin to undo the damage that has been inflicted by too often excluding these figures from the public square.

In the specific case of the statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback in front of New York’s Museum of Natural History, let’s also move toward solutions. The statue, sculptured by James Earle Fraser, has long been deemed “problematic” because Roosevelt is flanked by two semi-naked men, a Native American and an African, despite the fact that the sculptor intended their inclusion to be a statement about “Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” It does not read that way 80 years later. But Teddy Roosevelt remains an inspirational figure to many, including President Barack Obama.

In talking with my friend and CNN presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, we came up with the idea of recasting the Fraser statue of Teddy Roosevelt, putting it back in its central place in front of the museum that he helped develop, but – crucially – absent the offending companions. In addition, however, new statues should be elevated to the same level in the semi-circle stone plaza that surrounds it in front of the museum: figures like NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (depicted in the movie Hidden Figures); the famed natural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver; the immigrant and conservationist (and founder of the Sierra Club) John Muir; the legendary anthropologist Margaret Meade (who worked at the museum for decades); the Native American explorer Sacagawea, who guided Lewis and Clark on their journey through the wilderness of the American west; and Matthew Henson, an African American arctic explorer who may have been the first man to reach the North Pole when he traveled alongside US Navy Engineer Robert Peary.

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    This is, again, not a definitive list, just suggestions on the way to a larger conversation.

    America has always been – fitfully and imperfectly – a diverse democracy. But our current debates in politics and culture remind us how crucial – and too often ignored – civic education has become to our great detriment as a society. Rebuilding a uniting national narrative requires a more inclusive vision of our shared history. We should expand the aperture and put a new generation of sculptors and artists to work in a WPA-style program to achieve a more thoughtful and representative accounting of American history, with the full context and color which has too often gone un-reflected in the statues we honor in the public square.