Amid Charlottesville backlash, some are asking if statue removal push has gone too far

Since the violent clashes in Charlottesville earlier this month, the debate over removing Confederate monuments is sparking other controversies.

In New York City, for instance, there are growing calls to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus that stands atop a plinth in the middle of the famed traffic circle that bears the name of the Italian explorer.

On the campus of the University of Southern California, the director of the school’s Black Student Assembly has criticized the Trojan mascot’s horse because its name is similar to the one Robert E. Lee rode.

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And in Memphis, a group of protestors began digging up the grave of dead Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan member Nathan Bedford Forrest.

While cities like Baltimore and New Orleans have torn down their memorials to the Confederacy, some historians, free speech groups and politicians are now questioning how far the movement against the country’s controversial statues will go and how their removal will impact discussions of the Civil War and other divisive moments in U.S. history.

“Removing these statues facilitates people forgetting about the bad old days,” Alfred Brophy, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, told Fox News. “We have this idea that it is all about morals, but you have to contextualize these issues.”

Brophy added: “These statues create a conversation about our history and the dark days of our country.”

His sentiments were echoed by the mayor of the town at the center of the statue debate.

Writing in the Washington Post, Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer called the nighttime white nationalist demonstration that preceded the violent clashes “appalling” and “repellent,” but defended his vote not to remove the Lee statue.

Signer noted that a city commission’s report found that many African-Americans in Charlottesville opposed removing the statue “on the grounds that that it would be yet another example of hiding their experience.”

We shouldn’t honor the dishonorable Confederate cause, but we shouldn’t try to erase it, either...As philosopher George Santayana said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

- Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer

“We shouldn’t honor the dishonorable Confederate cause, but we shouldn’t try to erase it, either,” Singer wrote. “As philosopher George Santayana said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’”

Others, however, argue that the current fervor to remove these contentious memorials – Confederate or otherwise – is warranted and that if people really want to create a discussion about U.S. history there are better places do that than in a public park.

“Putting these statues in museums would be a great idea,” John Fabian Witt, a professor at Yale Law School, told Fox News. “That way we are able to keep these things and allow people to learn about an ugly part of this country’s history, but keep them outside of the public space.”

Instead of taking down these statues from public areas, Brophy said there are other ways to steer the discussion about the country’s history without putting them in a museum.

He said Talbot County, Maryland, is a good example.

The Eastern Shore county – located across the Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore and the birthplace of early civil rights leader Frederick Douglass – has for decades featured a memorial to the “Talbot Boys,” local men who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, at its courthouse.

Six years ago, in response to the pressure from local activists, the county erected a statute to the abolitionist Douglass on the same courthouse house grounds.

"I think it shows how this community has changed from a time when black people weren't allowed to even be on the courthouse lawn, and now we have a monument to a black man who was one of the most prominent figures of the 19th century," said Eric Lowery, president of the Frederick Douglass Honor Society. "It's truly a community project."

There also appears to be more support for keeping statues around than earlier reports indicated.

A number of recent polls have shown that the majority of American favor keeping them as historical symbols. A recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll found that 62 percent favor keeping up confederate memorials compared to just 27 percent that want them removed.

Even the NAACP has decried all the attention paid to those calling for the removal of statues, saying that the current argument over these memorials deflect attention from actual policy issues that affect the lives of African-Americans.

“We have to be careful that we not allow symbolism to override substance. Right now, we’re focused on bringing the statues down,” Rev. Wendell Anthony, the president of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, said last week, according to the Detroit Free Press. “Let’s be very clear, the Confederacy fought against the rights of black folks to be free. That’s who they were.”

Anthony added: “But if we take down statues but leave up the policies, we still have not done our job.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.