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Confederate monuments at National Park Service sites get a reprieve

The Alabama memorial at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By JOSEPH MORTON | CQ-Roll Call | Published: December 23, 2020

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Confederate symbols immortalized in bronze at National Park Service sites dodged a bullet this week. The final version of the fiscal 2021 spending package excluded language pushed by House Democrats that would remove the monuments from those sites.

Republicans had described the provision as a “poison pill” and “veto bait,” given President Donald Trump’s opposition. But Democratic supporters say dropping the provision represents a temporary truce rather than a white flag on their part. The Senate cleared the spending bill Monday.

House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Betty McCollum, D-Minn., lamented the absence of the monument provision.

“I am disappointed that Senate Republicans and President Trump refused to include House-passed provisions to remove hateful Confederate symbols from our national parks as a step toward confronting our nation’s legacy of racial injustice,” McCollum said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the Biden administration to pursue these critical provisions in the next Congress.”

At the heart of the issue are National Park Service sites commemorating Civil War battlefields such as Gettysburg that include monuments honoring Confederate soldiers who fought and died there. Such monuments have come under renewed criticism as the country wrestles with questions of racial justice and dark aspects of its history.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for Confederate statues at the Capitol to go. Earlier this week, the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was removed from the Capitol’s crypt.

Language in an appropriations package passed by the House earlier this year that included Interior-Environment spending and other measures would require the National Park Service to “remove from display all physical Confederate commemorative works, such as statues, monuments, sculptures, memorials, and plaques” within 180 days.

It also would bar the service from purchasing or displaying a Confederate flag “with the exception of specific circumstances where the flags provide historical context.”

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., has described the monument removal language as outside the jurisdiction of the House Appropriations Committee.

The Vicksburg Post quoted Hyde-Smith criticizing the House for including an “obscure provision” in a larger package rather than attempting to amend the National Historic Preservation Act.

“If enacted, this provision would effectively remove the names from the headstones of thousands of soldiers and civilians who died in one of the most decisive battles in Civil War history,” Hyde-Smith said, according to the newspaper. “This is not anything I can support.”

Trump has threatened to veto the defense policy bill in part over objections to renaming U.S. military bases that honor Confederates.

Democrats said they decided the monuments language wasn’t worth risking a government shutdown, particularly with Trump’s imminent departure from the White House. They say Biden could take executive action or quietly support including the same proposal in next year’s spending bills.

The Biden transition team did not respond to a request for comment about the issue.

But Biden was asked generally about such monuments during a June news conference. At that time, he made a distinction between recognizing slave-owning founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and honoring those who committed treason by rebelling against the Union in an effort to preserve slavery.

“I think all those Confederate monuments to Confederate soldiers and generals, etc., who strongly supported secession and the maintenance of slavery and going to war to do it, I think those statues belong in museums,” Biden said at the time. “They don’t belong in public places.”

(c)2020 CQ Roll Call
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Stonewall Jackson's statue at the Manassas National Battlefield Park.
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