On the eve of the Helena City Commission’s consideration of a modest proposal to add some additional educational signage at Helena’s Confederate Fountain, Mayor Jim Smith sent out an epistle to fellow commissioners outlining his arguments in opposition to the idea.
Two Helena city commissioners, Katherine Haque-Hausrath and Andres Haladay, have proposed to leave Helena’s Confederate Fountain completely untouched, unchanged, and unmoved. The are proposing only:
renaming it the “Civil War Memorial” fountain on our city website, etc, and a sign (as [the Montana Historical Society] suggest[s]) with the new name at the fountain explaining the history, including the fact that the Daughters of the Confederacy donated the fountain as part of its national campaign.
Yet Mayor Smith misrepresents their idea, claiming they have proposed “obliterating history.”
Despite the mayor’s struggles with supporting Helena’s non-discrimination ordinance and flubbing an endorsement of medicaid expansion, Mayor Smith has many good qualities, so I’ll admit I was surprised at the similarities in the mayor’s justification and that of right wingers in South Carolina fighting to keep the confederate flag.
Here’s Mayor Smith:
“That is what totalitarian regimes do… It’s going on today in the Middle East and Central Asia, as all traces of Bhuddist and Hindu culture are being destroyed.
Once this begins—with a Fountain in Hill Park—where will it lead and where will it end? We have Jefferson School right here in Helena. Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. We have three streets named after George Washington in Helena. I’ve been to Washington’s home at Mt. Vernon and seen the slave quarters there. Jackson Street? Another slave owner. Madison Street? Monroe Street? How about Confederate Gulch on Canyon Ferry Lake?”
As Vanity Fair reported this week in the article, “A Vocal Minority Is Still Fighting to Keep the Confederate Flag Flying in S.C.“, right winger’s robo-calls in support of the flag contained strikingly similar “reasoning”:
“Just like ISIS, [President] Obama’s haters want our monuments down, graves dug up, and school [sic], roads, towns, and counties renamed. They’ve even taken Dukes of Hazzard off TV…What’s next?”
By the way, South Carolina Senators supporting the flag’s removal dismissed the above message as “’emotionally overwrought’ and deliberately provocative.”
I hope that’s not where Mayor Smith is coming from or why his letter sets up a straw man argument that does not resemble what Commissioners Haque-Hausrath and Haladay are actually proposing. (His letter is here.)
Misapprehension about the proposal indeed appears to be the primary tactic to defeat the idea, as you can see from this exchange between Commissioner Haque-Hausrath and the Historical Society. Commissioner Haque-Hausrath writes:
I would like to clarify something that I believe may be the main source of opposition to Commissioner Haladay’s and my proposal. We have never proposed to file down the inscription or otherwise touch the fountain. We recognize the aesthetic and historic value of the fountain. Instead, our proposal would just involve renaming it the “Civil War Memorial” fountain on our city website, etc, and a sign (as you [the Historical Society] suggest) with the new name at the fountain explaining the history, including the fact that the Daughters of the Confederacy donated the fountain as part of its national campaign. As you noted in your letter, the fountain as it currently exists does not have the full historical context. I know that constituents and visitors to Helena have expressed concern to me about Helena having a Confederate memorial. Confederate symbols are being widely acknowledged to stand for racism and white supremacy. The fact that we have a Confederate memorial, combined with Montana’s unfortunate history of white supremacist groups, gives the inaccurate perception that our city is not open and welcoming.
We think our proposal will maintain the historical integrity of the fountain, honor all of the Civil War dead, while not having the government support a publicly-owned Confederate symbol. As is being discussed across the country, we do not believe an explicitly Confederate memorial and its attendant support for slavery and more recent symbol for white supremacy and exclusion of minorities, is appropriate for our city.
(Note that we had originally proposed a renaming contest by the Parks Board, but the Mayor opposes this idea, so we suggest a simple renaming by the Commission.)
A Cowgirl online poll shows strong support for the name change. If you haven’t voted, you can do so here. And of course, be sure to contact the Helena City Commission via email at email@example.com
As a final note to any pro-confederate readers here:
Nobody is saying you can’t honor the confederate cause on your own personal property all you like. I personally won’t be doing so, but if you do, consider putting your confederate shrine in your front yard. It probably doesn’t hurt to give your neighbors a clear indicator of your ignorance displayed prominently, so that there is no confusion. It’s just long past time the government stopped doing so.