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DC Statue Of Lincoln Standing Over A Formerly Enslaved Man Sparks Controversy (NPR)


In the nationwide reckoning over issues of racial justice, one of the latest flashpoints is a statue of Abraham Lincoln in a Washington, D.C., park named for the former president. The debate over that statue - whether it's offensive, whether it should go - reflects a very old conversation about America's history and symbols. NPR's Tim Mak has more.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: The Emancipation Memorial depicts President Abraham Lincoln standing, holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in one hand. At Lincoln's feet, a Black man crouches, his wrists with broken shackles, his fists clenched - one knee to the ground and the other knee raised. His eyes look out towards the horizon. But there's an argument over whether the man is depicted as subservient or in the process of liberation.

The statue in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., has been the site of protests this week, coming to a head last night.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: Welcome, everybody.

MAK: Young protesters organized to tear the statue down, asking on social media for supplies and hands to make it stop. At the park, they made their goal clear.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: Are you guys done hearing from people who do not want change?


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: So what are we going to? We are going to tear that [expletive] down.

MAK: The announcement of their intentions had drawn a small police presence and the installation of large fences around the statue. Passions led to an ideological clash among D.C.'s Black residents. And the divides were generational. Supporters point to what they say is an important history behind the statue's creation. The statue was mostly paid for by freed slaves and designed by a white man. It was built in 1876. Frederick Douglass spoke at the dedication. Marcia Cole is a 71-year-old Black woman, a historical reenactor who came dressed as Charlotte Scott, a former enslaved person who gave money to build this memorial. Cole says she sees a liberated figure.

MARCIA COLE: He's not kneeling on two knees. He's rising. You look at his hands. His hands - he's pushing off. He's not shackled to anyone. He's holding the broken chains of slavery in his hands, signifying he's assuming his rightful place in freedom.

MAK: Thirty-three-year-old Candice Eddington works for a consulting firm in Washington and sees it very differently. To her, Lincoln was not a liberator.

CANDICE EDDINGTON: And it made me disgusted, quite frankly - the fact that you have a man kneeling at the feet of Lincoln. It symbolized servitude. It symbolized oppression. And it doesn't symbolize freedom or emancipation in any shape, form or fashion to me.

MAK: As the group of young protesters explained their objections, older demonstrators interrupted to make their case.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: You young people would not be here if it wasn't on the backs of us old folks.


MAK: Even among opponents of the statue, there are a variety of opinions. Some want it torn down now. Others, like Marcus Goodwin, who started a petition for the statue's removal and is a local affordable housing advocate running for office, want to work through the system.

MARCUS GOODWIN: When I started this conversation, it was about removing the statue but doing it through a legislative process through the Department of Interior and the National Park Service to ensure that we find a new home for this piece of history and replace it with, preferably, an African American woman.

MAK: For almost all of the people present in the park that evening, tearing down racism starts with tearing down racist symbols like statues of Confederate officers. But the scene on Friday night and the generational split in the Black community over how to interpret this memorial shows there are grayer spaces in this conversation where meaning is contested. Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.

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